If it weren’t for St. Charles’ rapid response to the COVID-19 threat in our tri-county region, none of us would be enjoying the lifting of state sanctions today. The hospital’s response and report to Gov. Kate Brown that comprises much of the Deschutes County request for reopening retail this weekend is the reason that Phase 1 was granted — pure and simple.
The Bulletin set up a Q&A with St. Charles CEO Joe Sluka last week, and rather than paraphrase his answers, we’re publishing them verbatim, but abridged here, to give one a perspective on just how well the hospital responded to the pandemic.
(The full responses will be published online attached to this story, as well as the county’s petition to the governor).
One thing that struck us is that five health care workers came down with the virus. We have high praise for those folks in the trenches doing this dangerous work. Another thing is that St. Charles has no cases in the hospital as of this writing. A job well done, and deserving of a Beacon, our small way of saying thank you for the effort.
Q: Is this the first time St. Charles has been tested in such a manner?
A: This isn’t the first time we’ve had to make significant operational changes in response to a pandemic. In 2009, you’ll remember, we dealt with the H1N1 flu pandemic. Many of the things we’re doing now we also did then, but it’s true it was not on the same scale.
Q: How does it compare to the other times?
A: It most ways, it doesn’t compare to any other time. During H1N1, we had to problem solve many of the same challenges that we face now, including how to create surge capacity for an influx of patients and reduce the risk of transmission to our patients and caregivers. But the speed and scale of this pandemic is such that it has required the singular focus of our entire organization. To put it into better context: During the H1N1 pandemic, about 12,500 people died in the United States. Compare that with COVID-19, which has already killed six times as many.
Q: What specifically was the plan to pivot at the time?
A: We have a pandemic plan that calls for a phased approach, so our Incident Command looked to that document to guide our work. Throughout that work we had three objectives: to protect our patients and caregivers, to plan for a surge and to preserve our personal protective equipment. It was a herculean effort that required the skills and effort of a lot of people. Our Incident Command set up a labor pool through which many of our caregivers were reassigned to new and important roles. It was because of our plan and this process that we were able to double our bed capacity and change our workflows in fairly short order.
Q: How did the plan work, not work?
A: For the most part it has worked amazingly well. What has proved to be most challenging and frustrating is our ability to get the supplies we need. PPE is mission-critical safety gear and at one point we were faced with the very real possibility of running out. Fortunately, our amazing community stepped up to help us with donations and some orders came through. But we’re still operating in conservation mode to make our supplies stretch, as the supply chain continues to stabilize.
Q: Have we reached the apex number of patients or do you fear a recurrence?
A: We reached the peak of our first surge on April 5, when we had 14 patients. While it’s true we’ve seen a steady decline of hospitalized patients— today we have zero — I don’t think any of us can say with certainty what will happen next. We’re hopeful that we won’t see another surge, but we’re going to be prepared nonetheless.
Q: Across the globe, many medical personnel have been recognized by the community with applause, blaring car horns, singing, at the start and end of the shift. That was discouraged at St. Charles. Why?
A: We’re so fortunate to live and work in such an amazing community. So many people have stepped forward to help in different ways and we couldn’t be more appreciative. But if people would still like to help, they can consider donating money to our Hero Fund, which has been set up to provide hazard pay to our frontline caregivers.
Q: What have you taken away personally from this event, what has it meant to you?
A: I have been both humbled and inspired by this event. The physical, emotional and financial toll this pandemic has taken on the world is unlike anything I’ve witnessed in my lifetime. At the same time, I’m moved almost every day by the selfless attitude of our caregivers who continue to show up no matter what waits for them. I’ve never been more proud of this organization.
I’ve also been so thankful for the incredible support of our community.
At times when this job has proved most challenging, it has been the encouraging words of our community leaders, neighbors and friends who have kept us going. We won’t ever forget that. I know I won’t.