The flu is the problem, you are the answer: combating hospital capacity concerns

BY CORIE LYNN

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed many problems.

One of the first was the disappearance of cleaning supplies and toilet paper from store shelves, then it was community and state-wide lockdowns.

As the winter months draw near, health professionals see a new problem on the horizon: flu season.

Each year, hospitals like Citizens Medical Center in Colby and Hays Medical Center see an influx of patients as flu season begins in the fall. With the medical centers still treating coronavirus cases, they expect more in-patients than in previous years.

According to Chief Clinical Officer Jenny Niblock, Citizens Medical Center has a 25-patient capacity and is “running at near-capacity every day.”

Not only does the Colby hospital expect more patients through the combined effects of COVID-19 and the flu, but Niblock said that they expect more patients with multiple problems.

This type of influx, she said, “worsens in the rural area.”

Knowing this is the case, the medical center has prepared for additional patients with plans to open more rooms and to transfer patients to hospitals or meet them in an out-patient setting.

An increase in patients brings an increase in supply needs, even more so as the hospital staff prepares for the atypical flu season.

“We tend to get more [staffing, medications and supplies] during the season,” Niblock said.

This final point emphasizes a point that makes the combined flow of coronavirus and flu patients difficult for hospitals.

Whether visiting a medical center in Colby or Hays, patients rely on hospital staff for both in-patient and out-patient treatment. Fewer working staff decreases the capacities of hospitals, which Gayla Wichman, Hays Medical Center director of marketing, explains is the greatest problem.

“Hospitals across the state and the nation are worried about staffing,” she said. “At HaysMed, we are licensed for 207 beds and currently have staffing for 88 beds or 88 patients.”

Like Citizens Medical Center, HaysMed has seen an increase in patients due to COVID-19. According to Wichman, even without flu patients, the hospital has had to divert patients because they reached capacity.

“This has happened even when we were not in the COVID-19 pandemic but we are finding it happening more frequently due to the influx of COVID-19 patients,” she said.

The medical center, too, has measures in place to prepare for patient influx, including the continuing problem of capacity.

“HaysMed is always prepared to care for patients with infectious diseases such as flu,” Wichman said, “so we are approaching this season the same as other seasons and are prepared to take care of those patients.”

Even though the medical staff in both Hays and Colby are preparing to meet the challenge of flu season, their preparedness does not mean they will not face difficulties.

Because capacity is dependent on a staffed hospital, both medical centers will face additional challenges if staff members fall sick, regardless of the illness.

For this reason, Niblock emphasizes the importance of taking precautions such as washing hands and staying home. Wichman, too, believes community-wide mitigation is essential to keeping the medical centers staffed.

“It is critical for all of us to work together to reverse this increase,” she said. “Healthcare workers cannot do this alone. If our staff is sick then we decrease the number of people who can care for patients which then decreases the number of patients we can accept.”

With this in mind, local hospitals recognize that flu season presents a problem in light of the pandemic, but the answer is not in the hands of only the staff members.

It instead lies in a community effort to prevent the spread of illness. By keeping one another healthy, healthcare workers have a greater chance of staying healthy, allowing them to treat their patients.

“People are COVID-weary and so are healthcare workers but we cannot let our guard down.  HaysMed is committed to doing whatever they can to protect your health and well being but we need the public’s help,” Wichman said.

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