Tahoe hospitals adjust to coronavirus surge

Madison Schultz, Associate Editor

With the growth of the COVID-19 pandemic around the nation, counties surrounding Lake Tahoe are beginning to feel the effects, with small communities like South Lake Tahoe and Truckee declared “hotspots.”

Between Tahoe Forest Hospital in Truckee and Barton Memorial Hospital in South Lake Tahoe, the number of cases in both communities is expanding. And the challenge isn’t just about the spread of the virus, but also how small these hospitals are.

“The number of positive test cases is increasing daily in our region,” Paige Thomason, director of marketing and communications at Tahoe Forest Health System, said in an email interview. “The current infection rate locally is estimated to be approximately 0.2% of the population that are infected with COVID-19, which is roughly six times higher than the rest of the state of California. We believe there will be a tremendous surge in hospital activity if we go from where we are now (0.2%) to a 1% infection rate.”

Because of the threat of exceeding capacity, Tahoe Forest Hospital is stressing the importance of community measures, including practices like social distancing and staying six feet away from others, only going out for essential services, following a healthy shelter-in-place safety practice, and eliminating all unessential travel.

In efforts to control the spread of this virus, Barton Health is also conducting screening and testing for COVID-19 daily by healthcare workers. The hospital has also created a 24/7 COVID-19 health line, available to people who believe themselves or a loved one could possibly be infected. If these callers go through the phone process and screen accordingly, they will then be referred to Barton’s Respiratory Medical Clinic for further testing.

Healthcare workers are also battling COVID-19 on the frontlines every day and risking their personal health.

“Local healthcare workers are putting in strenuous hours and taking personal risks of infection in order to help our local community,” Thomason said. “A handful of the 1,000-plus employees of Tahoe Forest Health System have tested positive for COVID-19. While the Tahoe Forest team is putting everything on the line, it’s also very common for healthcare workers to become ill.”

Tahoe Forest also ensured that those medical workers who have tested positive for COVID-19 are self-quarantined at home, and every employee is screened daily for symptoms at the beginning of each shift.

Like much of the country, Lake Tahoe communities are also feeling the crunch of medical supply shortages.

“There is a shortage of some traditional hospital and staff supplies and this is happening across the country,” Mindi Befu, director of public relations at Barton Health, said. “This is why government and healthcare officials have issued pleas not to hoard medical supplies. Hospitals are on the front lines of treating this pandemic and need those supplies to care for patients. In response to nationwide shortages, the CDC has revamped its guidelines and expanded its list of approved medical supplies. This includes Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) used by our clinicians.”

Barton Health also stated that this is an evolving situation with new recommendations issued by the CDC constantly. The hospital is following these recommendations from the CDC whenever it makes adjustments, to adjust its supplies and PPE equipment. Currently, the hospital has the PPE equipment that is needed to treat patients following CDC guidelines.

At Tahoe Forest Hospital, there are currently nine ventilators and several more on the way. Barton Memorial Hospital also has nine ventilators and six emergency room ventilators available if they become necessary. Though there is a shortage of supplies, healthcare workers have been working towards getting prepared to aid patients who have tested positive.

Also, in preparation for a potential influx of patients, Tahoe Forest Hospital has been working with county and state officials to create alternate care sites with equipment and staffing support, if it becomes necessary.

To reduce the potential for virus spread. both Tahoe Forest Hospital and Barton Memorial Hospital are also restricting all hospital visitors and patients coming to any local clinics unless there is an urgent medical need.

“We have implemented telemedicine services with many of our clinical providers, and this access is growing daily,” Thomason said. “There is curbside pick-up for prescriptions at our pharmacy in Truckee and a temporary laboratory draw station located inside the medical office building. We are screening every patient we see, anywhere, for any illness symptoms, and all patients must wear a mask. We have restricted elective surgery and radiology visits, as well.”

Like Tahoe Forest Hospital, Barton Health has also rescheduled all elective surgeries.

“As shelter-in-place orders loosen, Barton will begin expanding its medical services in a safe and methodical way to include additional surgeries and procedures to best support the overall health of the South Lake community,” Befu said.

Looking forward, both hospitals are working diligently towards mitigating the further spread of COVID-19 and ask everyone else to do the same.

“Flattening the curve reduces the number of cases of COVID-19 in the community to avoid overwhelming the health system, both here in South Shore and across our region,” Befu said. “Barton is working diligently to limit exposure and protect patients and healthcare workers, by updating operations at the hospital and throughout the healthcare system’s network of medical offices.”

Tahoe Forest Hospital and Barton Health encourage everyone to practice social distancing and follow shelter-in-place orders currently in place. They are both taking in donations for medical supplies, including gloves, masks, and PPE equipment.

Emergency rooms in both North and South Lake Tahoe are still open and operating per normal, according to both hospitals’ websites.

If you, or a loved one, think you could be infected with COVID-19 and are in South Lake Tahoe, call the COVID-19 Health Line at: 530-600-1999.

If you, or a loved one, think you could be infected with COVID-19 and are in the North Lake Tahoe area, call the COVID-19 Health Line at: 530-582-3450.