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There has been a lot of conversation about the state of healthcare in the Kanawha Valley during the coronavirus pandemic.

As the Chief Medical Officer for Thomas Health and a lifelong resident of Charleston, I would like to provide insight into the current situation we are facing in our area.

As of Friday, Thomas Health has 23 COVID-19 positive patients throughout our system. Working in conjunction with the Governor, the DHHR and the National Guard, Thomas Health volunteered two floors in our Saint Francis Hospital for conversion into the state surge facility in April.

The surge hospital was developed to allow for the transfer of patients from hospitals to another facility until a nursing home bed is available.

As seen early in the pandemic in New York, they encouraged an early return of COVID-19 positive patients back to their nursing homes which accelerated the infection rates in the area.

Having a facility dedicated to patients awaiting nursing home placement would allow hospitals to transfer stable patients to Saint Francis and free up hospital beds to handle the acute patient needs of their communities.

The Saint Francis Hospital Surge Unit has the capacity for over 70 patients, however, the issue for our area is not the lack of hospital beds but the lack of staffing for those beds.

Before the pandemic, our area was already facing critical nursing shortages requiring hospitals to pay for traveling nurses. With the pandemic, we have seen the number of available travel nurses diminish greatly, resulting in hospitals closing inpatient floors due to a lack of adequate staffing. Our current nurses, as well as our entire hospital staff, have been working extremely long and hard hours providing the best care possible to our community. Unfortunately, we are now experiencing our staff developing symptoms due to the increasing community spread of COVID-19. This has only further exacerbated our current staffing shortages.

Thomas Health continues to work closely with the governor, DHHR and the National Guard and we are actively recruiting additional travel nurses and ancillary staff. We are looking to expand the role of Saint Francis Hospital and Thomas Memorial Hospital if adequate staffing can be found to safely care for our patients.

I would ask that if you are a nurse currently working in a non-hospital environment, a retired nurse or another retired healthcare worker that you consider re-entering the hospital workforce and help us care for our community during these historic times.

So what is the solution?

To put it simply, our hospitals need additional nurses, not additional beds.

Thomas Health is and always will be a system committed to the community. Throughout the years, our unwavering mission to serve the needs of the communities has pushed us to respond again to the challenges we face, and the COVID pandemic is no different.

Caring for our community is everyone’s responsibility and we need to come together during the pandemic for our friends, families, and neighbors.

Thomas Health is blessed to provide support to our communities during this difficult time.

Dr. Matthew Upton is the Chief Medical Officer and Chief Medical Information Officer for Thomas Health.