Hospitals preparing for worst-case scenario

DeWayne Bartels
Are Peoria's hospitals prepared if H1N1 hits their medical ranks? A special report examines that question is in this week's issue of the Peoria Times-Observer.

A lot of attention has been focused on the business community being prepared for high employee absenteeism in the event of a large H1N1 Flu outbreak in the Greater Peoria Area. 

What about a scenario that impacts employees of our medical providers, making it difficult for those whose job it is to care for the sick?

Medical providers say they are prepared, but dealing with an H1N1 Flu pandemic will bring changes.

One is that elective surgery could become a casualty of medical care if H1N1 begins to burden local medical resources.

H1N1 has already caused changes. Currently, you have to pass a test of sorts by an emergency dispatcher to get an ambulance sent to you for H1N1.

These are two ways medical providers plan to cope if H1N1 Flu seriously attacks not only the populace, but also medical personnel.

So far, so good

So far, it is business mostly as usual in the medical community, even though H1N1 Flu is in full swing in the Greater Peoria Area.

Administrators at Advanced Medical Transport, OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, Methodist Medical Center and Proctor Hospital say they are seeing more people than usual with H1N1 symptoms.

But, they say, so far, the facilities have not yet seen their ability to serve the public tested by a rash of their own employees becoming sick.

Plans are in place if that becomes the case.  

Greg Chance, director of the Peoria City/County Health Department, said that with H1N1, employee absenteeism could reach as high as 20 to 30 percent. That could result in a serious blow to the medical personnel who would take care of the sick.   

“These are potential challenges we need to be prepared for,” Chance told county board members early last month.

Sue Wozniak, chief operating officer of OSF Saint Francis Medical Center, said prevention is the first line of defense at the hospital.

Terry Schadt, Methodist Medical Center safety officer, and  Maggi Ballard, assistant nurse manager and emergency management coordinator at Proctor Hospital, agreed.  

In a normal year, OSF Saint Francis Medical Center strives for 65 percent of the workforce to be immunized against the flu. This year the benchmark is 80 percent for the 5,000 employees of the hospital, 3,000 of which provide direct medical care.

At Methodist, the number of medical employees is 2,500 at the hospital and another 150 at physician‘s offices.

Proctor Hospital has 1,100 employees. Mandy Carballido, director of human resources, said all their employees are considered medical personnel.

Plans ready

All three hospitals have an internal group working on how to deal with sick employee issues.

“We have published guidelines and a plan for sick employees,” Wozniak said. “We will closely monitor sick employee rates.”

Wozniak said a pandemic plan is in place.

That plan has provisions to eliminate elective procedures to focus resources on the H1N1 Flu. She said 60 to 70 percent of surgeries done daily are elective in nature.

Colonoscopies, she added, could be cut back.  

“There are many functions that could be scaled back. It’s complicated,” Wozniak said. “In many ways, we have experience with this already. We had a shortage a few years ago with flu vaccine.”

Schadt said Methodist has a patient surge plan that also calls for the elimination of elective surgery.

Ballard said Proctor Hospital is closely monitoring patient loads and is prepared to implement its patient surge plan.

She said Proctor expects to put the plan in play at some point during this flu season.

“We can have medical personnel shift jobs. We also have a pool of nurses we can call on if needed,” she said.

“If it gets to be an issue with all three hospitals, we have a plan to call on the Medical Reserve Corps (a volunteer group overseen by the Peoria City/County Health Department) and the Remert Regional Emergency Response Team (made up of personnel from 25 regional hospitals.)”

Wozniak said a worst-case scenario involves large numbers of very sick people, on ventilators and people dying from H1N1 Flu.

“Right now, there’s no indication in the next two to three months we’ll have a worst-case scenario,” Wozniak said.

“There will be deaths, but it won’t be half the sick. There could be one or two deaths associated with H1N1, but it will be patients who have chronic underlying illnesses to begin with. Our plans are scalable to handle anything. That should give the public some comfort.”