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Tucson Medical Center prepares for expected surge of coronavirus patients
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Tucson Medical Center prepares for expected surge of coronavirus patients

From the Tucson-area coronavirus coverage from January to March: Nearly 1,300 cases in Arizona, stay-at-home order series

As hospitals and health-care workers around the country have been inundated with COVID-19 cases, officials at Tucson Medical Center say they are preparing for the worst.

In the hospital’s COVID-19 Command Center, staff and administrators work to manage coronavirus cases, keep track of testing and supplies, field phone calls from the public and ensure the hospital is prepared for what might be a surge of patients.

“We’re busy preparing for what we anticipate coming,” said Mimi Coomler, TMC’s chief operating officer. “The situation with COVID-19 is that it is rapidly evolving, and so we have this command center here so that we can be poised and prepared to respond to those changes in a timely fashion as well as have a team that is dedicated to working on preparing for what is to come.”

As of Thursday morning, TMC has sent out 229 samples for testing for COVID-19 with 32 pending results. While hospital officials would not provide an updated number of confirmed cases, they reported seven positive cases and three hospitalized patients Tuesday morning.

Dr. Bob England, interim director of the Pima County Health Department, said there are 13 hospitalized patients in Pima County, four of whom are in intensive care.

TMC said it hasn’t had any health-care workers test positive for the virus as of yet. Several staff members have had to call in sick with a fever or cough, but they are staying home from work.

Even with a national shortage of personal protection equipment, medical and testing supplies, Coomler said TMC is “in the green” in all areas at the moment, which includes its stock of yellow loop masks, isolation gowns, goggles, gloves and ventilators.

“We believe that things will continue to escalate for us,” Coomler said. “But we’re hoping that based on all of the measures that we put in place, both as a community and as a hospital, that they won’t escalate in the same fashion as other areas.”

During a Pima County Board of Supervisors meeting Thursday, England said he was worried about a shortage of personal protective equipment for health-care providers in the area.

Coomler said TMC’s command center staff is monitoring the stock of all essential items on a daily basis and based on what they’re seeing from their suppliers, they don’t anticipate running out any time soon.

Coomler said the hospital has put safety measures in place to protect the staff and patients. In addition to limiting visitors and canceling elective surgeries, the hospital has screening stations at its entrances. Anybody coming into the hospital will have their temperature checked before being allowed in.

The hospital now also requires medical workers to wear a mask at all times.

“Last week, we went to universal masking, so when you walk up and down our halls, anybody who works in a patient facing area has been wearing a yellow loop mask 24/7,” Coomler said. “So, whether they’re in with a patient or not, they’re wearing masks.”

TMC also has a dedicated unit for COVID-19 patients, which has negative pressure ventilation to reduce the risk of exposure to other areas of the hospital. Coomler said all patients who meet the clinical criteria to be admitted and have signs of respiratory infection or COVID-19 are placed in the unit.

“We have a medical team, between pulmonology, intensive care and infectious disease that are all co-managing each patient,” she said. “They are huddling every day to ensure they are keeping up on all of the training and trends.”

When a positive case comes in, Coomler said the patient’s electronic file is flagged.

“In that unit, we are also working to minimize exposure,” she said. “So, things that we would normally do like have a phlebotomist go in and draw your blood, the nurse taking care of the patient is drawing their blood. Normally, we would have a dietary technician bring your lunch or bring your meals to you, and now we’re having the nurse do that. So we’re adjusting our staffing to minimize that exposure.”

TMC officials say they are continuing to test individuals who are showing symptoms of coronavirus and following the state and local health departments’ guidelines.

“We are hearing information that TMC is denying testing. And that is absolutely not true,” said Clifford Martin, TMC’s infectious disease specialist. “There are situations that the county has told us criteria to test for, and we have followed those criteria.”

Because widespread testing is not available in Pima County, and likely won’t be because of supply shortages, Coomler said the best thing someone can do is monitor their health and hygiene carefully.

“I think there are a number of people who really want the information today so that they know,” she said. “And really staying at home, social-distancing and diligence to hand hygiene is the best approach versus a test to rule them out.”

At the same time, hospital officials say they don’t want community members to be afraid to come to the emergency room if they need to.

“One of the things I worry about is people waiting too long because they’re concerned about the evolving situation,” Coomler said. “We are here and available for all of the medical care that is needed.”

Lisa Goldberg, the medical director of TMC’s emergency department, said people should be watching out for a new cough, shortness of breath, worsening shortness of breath and a fever. “If they call 911, they need to notify them that they are a possible COVID exposure or if they’ve been tested so that EMS is prepared going in to get them,” she said. “EMS will then notify us and we will respond accordingly.”

Contact reporter Jasmine Demers at jdemers@tucson.com.

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