In the next few days, Erie County in upstate New York is projected to see its peak number of coronavirus cases. The county, home to Buffalo-based Catholic Health, has already been hit hard by the virus, but more patients are expected to fall ill.
As of April 17, more than 2,020 residents had tested positive and 115 had died from the novel coronavirus, according to the Erie County Health Department. Projections indicate that the county will experience its apex of COVID-19 patients on April 22.
While that prospect is daunting, Catholic Health leaders are confident they can handle the surge because of strategic decisions made over the last seven weeks. Since the five-hospital system saw its first COVID-19 patient in late February, operations have dramatically changed to prepare for an influx of cases.
In just a few weeks, Catholic Health set up an incident command center, created a real-time dashboard to track vital supplies such as N95 masks and, perhaps most unique, ceased all operations at one of its community hospitals and transformed it into a treatment center for COVID-19 patients.
“We are trying to take a proactive approach to the COVID-19 crisis,” system CEO Mark Sullivan said.
Catholic Health is among many U.S. systems closely following projections of when their community can expect a COVID-19 patient surge and transforming business in preparation. Healthcare planning consultants say that in this pandemic, preparing for patients—in big or small ways depending on resources—makes sense for any provider organization, or else they risk putting patients and staff further in harm’s way.
“You can’t assume you are never going to see one of these patients,” said Dr. Chuck Peck, a partner at consultancy Guidehouse. While Catholic Health is making large investments, Peck said not all organizations can or should. “There are things that they can do to prepare that will cost some money but won’t necessarily break the bank,” he said.
Also, providers expecting a surge can benefit from lessons learned in cities where one has already taken hold, such as New York and Chicago. “This is hitting the whole country, but it’s not spiking everywhere at the same time, which allows for some great planning options in terms of supplies, equipment or staffing,” said Teri Oelrich, partner at architectural firm NBBJ.
Designing units specifically for COVID-19 patients has become common, but Catholic Health saw an opportunity to go a step further given the low daily census at one of its community hospitals. In a week, the emergency department at St. Joseph Campus was closed and all its space transformed with new units, walls and doors. The St. Joseph COVID-19 Treatment Facility opened March 27.
Designating an entire facility for infected patients allows Catholic Health to deploy relevant supplies and staff to that area as well as prevents its four other hospitals from being overwhelmed, Sullivan said.