Kanawha County officials met Thursday at the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department to discuss looming issues associated with the COVID-19 pandemic as cases in the area rise.
Stakeholders from the health department, local government, area hospitals and other county authorities discussed everything from a nurse shortage that is causing staffing problems at medical facilities to a price-spike for personal protective equipment.
“We’re not sure at this point if we need a large number of additional beds or not, but we need to be prepared,” Dr. Art Ruben, chairman of the KCHD Board of Directors, said.
A majority of the meeting was spent discussing Saint Francis Hospital, which, since April, has been designated as West Virginia’s surge hospital if COVID-19 cases begin to overwhelm local health systems.
These challenges aren’t new to hospital administrators, officials said.
“We’re not in a place to worry right now; we’re doing OK,” Dan Lauffer, president and CEO of Thomas Health System, said. “Our challenges are what they are: Do we have supplies, PPE, treatment and medicine, staff?”
Dr. Glenn Crotty, executive vice president of Charleston Area Medical Center, said one of their bigger concerns is having enough employees to keep facilities running at full capacity.
“We have plenty of beds,” Crotty said, “it’s the staff to staff them.”
A nationwide nurse shortage is affecting West Virginia like any other state, Lauffer said. Especially during a pandemic, though, it’s hard to recruit workers without taking resources away from another facility battling the same virus.
“That helps no one with this issue,” Lauffer said. “We’re trying to work together as a connected asset to help this community and survive the pandemic.”
Currently, there are six COVID-19 patients housed at the surge hospital, which is 75% funded by the Federal Emergency Management Agency and 25% funded by the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources.
As schools start to reopen next week, more challenges arise in the county’s response to the pandemic.
Dr. Sherri Young, the Kanawha-Charleston Health Department’s executive director and chief health officer, said she doesn’t expect to see cases go down drastically anytime soon, and while there are systems in place for when there’s a case identified at a school, there could be other consequences.
If classes end up being completely virtual, Lauffer said, there are hundreds of hospital employees who will need to find someone to watch their children, or take off work to do so themselves, further stressing facilities struggling with staffing.
And, as schools do prepare to return, some are mass-purchasing PPE, making the price on some rise and others less available.
Overall, Young said, the county could be seeing better numbers but its not surprising, as outbreaks continue at long-term care facilities and among the community.
“It’s more than we’d like. It’s alarming, yes, and I think we need to be aware of how fast things can change,” Young said. “For now, though, we want to prepare.”