Rebuilding America: Healthcare providers adapt to challenges to continue to provide essential care

Alicia Marshall Bright.

Like all medical providers, Ascension Via Christi Hospital in Pittsburg has had to adapt and make some changes to its operations in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. 

In response to questions we asked about how the hospital has dealt with COVID-19, Randy Cason, president of the hospital, said local testing is being led by the Crawford and Bourbon County health departments. “We are testing all patients who arrive with COVID-19 symptoms,” Cason said. “We are also testing all pre-operative patients. We are not overwhelmed, and we are well-stocked and ready to provide care.”

The hospital and its staff “took a proactive role in preparing for the COVID-19 pandemic,” Cason said. “Almost immediately, we began ensuring supplies and protective equipment were stocked and ready for use. We paused certain non-urgent services, including community education, and rescheduled elective and non-urgent surgeries and other appointments. We also developed a patient surge plan to allow us to accept a large number of COVID-19 patients.” 

Other measures taken included implementing restrictions on visitation at the hospital.  

“We added virtual care as an option for some outpatient services such as behavioral health, pediatrics and primary care,” Cason said. “However, some care must be provided in person, so we put procedures in place to reduce their risk, such as checking patients in from their vehicles and then bringing them directly to an exam room when it was time for them to be seen.”

Some of the changes the hospital put in place are temporary. Others, however, could be longer lasting.

“We are looking at lessons learned and evaluating what changes, particularly those made in the areas of registration, visitation, and facility design, should be incorporated going forward,” Cason said. “Continuing and possibly expanding virtual care options is another area under consideration.”

Responding to the coronavirus crisis, of course, was not limited to simply preparing to care for COVID-19 patients. The hospital had to remain capable of treating those needing treatment for any number of other conditions.

“Our associates and medical staff continue to treat patients for conditions not related to the novel coronavirus, so we had to quickly devise and implement a plan for how we could safely treat all the patients coming to us for care,” Cason said. “We created designated areas for treating patients with or suspected to have COVID-19. These areas are staffed by associates dedicated to working in those areas. All of these procedures limit the exposure to others.”

As restrictions on business and public activities in response to the coronavirus become less strict, Ascension Via Christi continues to plan and prepare for what could come next.

“As of May 4, we began performing the diagnostic, medical and surgical procedures that had been put on pause in preparation for a potential patient surge,” Cason said. “As we gradually resume full operations, we are following the guidelines established by our local, state and federal public health agencies and continue to practice universal masking and to restrict visitation to limit exposure to our patients and associates.”

Cason added that the hospital wants to remind the local community that their help was instrumental in “flattening the curve” of COVID-19 infection. 

“By following the CDC’s recommendations -- practicing good hand hygiene, wearing a mask and maintaining physical distance when in public settings -- you are helping stem the spread of the virus,” Cason said. “This protects our hospital associates, medical staff, and at-risk population and ensures our capacity to safely care for all who come to us.”

Cason also stressed the importance of not putting off caring for your health because of coronavirus fears.. 

“If you have a health concern or if you have a chronic condition, call your doctor,” he said. “If you have a medical emergency or need immediate medical attention, our emergency rooms stand ready to take care of your emergency needs. If you are experiencing a life-threatening emergency or difficulty breathing, go directly to the ER or dial 911. Delaying medical care could negatively impact your health.”

Despite precautions put in place because of COVID-19, patients can continue to expect the same high-quality care they rely on from Ascension Via Christi.

“We, along with our medical staff, made some changes to our physical environment and processes to make our facilities the safest possible in which to give and receive care,” Cason said. “But one thing remains a constant: Our Mission. Our associates and medical staff remain committed to keeping our communities healthy during this time and preventing the spread of infection while continuing to care for those who need us most. We know this has been a difficult time to take care of your health and an even greater challenge for those who are responsible for the care and well-being of loved ones. We are here for you and your family and together we will get through this. I want to give a special ‘thank you’ to our associates, medical staff and community health providers for their dedication and support.”

Along with many hospitals across America, the Mercy network of hospitals have had to change policies to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

“Mercy began taking steps to guard against the coronavirus months ago,” said Jeremy Drinkwitz, president of Mercy Hospital Joplin. “In mid-March, we made the difficult decision to restrict visitors to our hospitals and clinics in order to limit the possibility of exposure, as well as screening our co-workers and patients.

Mercy hospitals have also been offering video and phone visits where possible, to limit potential exposure to the coronavirus for its patients, as well as establish a call center to better help the region.

“For more than a month, we helped operate Joplin’s COVID-19 call center and testing site as a service to the community. Even now as we have begun to reactivate our services, Mercy is making sure to adhere to social distancing and masking guidelines and following certain criteria before performing certain procedures.” said Drinkwitz.

“Those criteria include a negative COVID-19 test, continued flat or decreased COVID-19 hospitalizations for two weeks and adequate testing and PPE supplies in order to keep our patients, co-workers and community safe.” added Drinkwitz.

At many Mercy locations, including the Joplin, Missouri facility, you will find a special triage tent area outside of the building to provide treatment to patients who are showing symptoms of Covid-19.

According to the CDC, the coronavirus is spread “from person to person, mainly through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs. Spread is more likely when people are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet).”

By limiting the amount of patients that are allowed to enter the facilities, Mercy hospitals are helping cut down on possible community spread.

Mercy is also currently offering online screening, where potential patients may report any symptoms they are showing, and enter their contact information for further response from the Mercy doctors.

Patients who have to visit the facilities have special procedures to follow once inside the hospital. 

Visitors are barred from attending appointments with adult patients, with a few examples, including young children if there is not readily available child care.

Upon entering a hospital, patients answer screening questions and have their temperature taken. Patients that are running a fever are required to wear a mask throughout their visit, and potential visitors who have a high temperature are asked to remain outside of the building, unless they are essential to the care of the patient or children.

Although the state has slowly begun to relax restrictions on the stay-at-home order, Mercy hospital is still practicing virtual and phone visits, along with postponing of non-urgent care.

Mercy hospitals have an Emergency Response Fund, allowing people to help the frontline workers.

With fingers crossed, Integris Miami Hospital president Jonas Rabel hopes the local battle with COVID-19 has peaked.

“Right now, we feel we have likely reached our peak, but there is always the chance that as our state opens back up, and people forget about the need for social distancing, hand hygiene, masks, etc., we could see the virus begin to spread at a higher rate,” said Rabel, who also is president of Integris Grove Hospital.

He felt that the state’s “safer at home” recommendations have proved beneficial.

“Yes, the ‘shelter in place’ helped us flatten the curve in Oklahoma and avoid overwhelming our health care systems,” he said in an email interview.

“We are thankful that we have been able to flatten the curve in Miami,” Rabel said. “We just encourage people to continue following CDC (Center for Disease Control) guidelines to ensure we don’t have a hot spot of COVID activity pop up.”

Rabel said doctors and staff have been holding up well.

“I’ve never been more proud of our team,” he said. “Their compassion and dedication to our patients and our community has always been inspiring, but the challenges we have faced through this pandemic have highlighted their courage, endurance, resilience, loyalty, compassion and professionalism.

“Our caregivers rallied immediately taking action to prepare for any potential surge that might come our way. Many of them working on weekends and evenings, doing whatever was needed to prepare and provide the care our patients needed. They each have a calling to serve others and I am humbled by their dedication. I am honored to lead our team.”

Unfortunately, Delaware County has had 93 positive cases — 10th most in Oklahoma — with 16 deaths. Seventy-four of those have been in Grove.

Statewide, there have been 5,310 positive cases, 288 deaths, 879 cumulative hospitalizations and 3,983 recoveries.

The biggest challenge facing the Miami and Grove hospitals, along with other locations throughout the state and country are PPE, with N95 masks the greatest demand.

“We continue to make the safety of our caregivers and patients our top priority. We have a PPE preservation plan to ensure we meet the needs of our patients, while protecting them as well as our staff,” Rabel said. “Being a part of the Integris system has many benefits. As an example, one of our ventilators needed some routine maintenance, we were able to secure a ventilator from the Integris system.”

Late last month, Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris donated a million FDA-approved ASTM Level 1 facemasks.

Integris Miami received 4,000 of the facemasks, which were shared with Integris Grove.

The donation provided masks to every local community with a Bass Pro Shops or Cabela’s store, boat center, distribution center, and White River Marine Group manufacturing facility – over 200 communities in total.

The White River Marine Group has a Tracker plant in Miami.

“We are so thankful for the generous donation of masks by White River Marine/Bass Pro,” Rabel said. We will be sharing these masks with INTEGRIS Grove Hospital as well.

Members of the community also have been making donations of homemade masks.

“Those masks are not used by our staff, but they are used to protect our caregivers,” Rabel said. “We give each patient a cloth mask to wear while in our facility, or in physician’s offices. This protects our staff, and others, by containing respiratory droplets.

We have also had a generous number of KN95 masks, gloves, sanitizer and sanitizing wipes donated. It has been heart-warming to see so many people in our community reach out to donate supplies. ”

There’s also been an outpouring of snacks and meals for staffers from around the Miami area.

“Buffalo Run has fed all of our employees. The World’s Finest Chocolate dropped off candy bars for each employee. Even the notes and cards that people have sent to thank our staff have had a huge impact on their moral. We are blessed to live in a very generous community,” Rabel said.

Rabel appreciates that support and encourages everyone to continue to “think local.”

“There has never been a better time to shop local, eat locally, use local services, use a local physician and use your local hospital, whether it’s supporting our schools and non-profits, or providing much needed services during a crisis, the people we count on most are right here in our community,” he said. “The best way to thank them, and to ensure we have those jobs and services in our community, is to give them our business.”

COVID-19 survivor beats the odds 

Forty-five days after arriving at Freeman West Health System with a COVID-19 diagnosis, Joplin resident  83-year old Wallace Lea was discharged with a "patient going home parade" in the halls of the hospital. Freeman staff including nurses, doctors, respiratory therapists and employees from many departments lined the halls as Lea exited the hospital to applaud his survival of the novel corona virus known as COVID-19. 

Lea's condition changed from what doctors called a grim prognosis to recovery and discharge.

 “I’m so thrilled that he is going home,” Dr. Rob McNab, director of the Freeman COVID unit. said. “I’m thrilled he is alive. He was critically ill. I’m excited he’s going home with his health intact, and I’m confident he’ll make a full recovery.” 

Although Lea is on the road to recovery, he lost two family members to COVID-19, a sister and a brother-in-law.  He came down with the disease after a trip to Mississippi for a family reunion. After spending 14 days on a ventilator and being isolated from his wife and family, Lea took a turn toward recovery.

He walked out of Freeman on his own two feet, choosing not to make use of a decorated wheelchair. He and his wife, La Vetta, will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary next month - a milestone that both thought  for awhile that they might not make.

Lea had one thing to say to those who doubt the severity of COVID-19 and equate it with the flu.

"It ain't the flu," he said.

Locally owned, not-for-profit and nationally recognized, Freeman Health System includes Freeman Hospital West, Freeman Hospital East, Freeman Neosho Hospital and Ozark Center – the area’s largest provider of behavioral health services – as well as two urgent care clinics, dozens of physician clinics and a variety of specialty services. In 2019, Freeman earned dozens of individual awards for medical excellence and patient safety from CareChex®, a quality rating system that helps consumers evaluate healthcare providers.   U.S. News & World Report named Freeman Health System the Best Hospital in Southwest Missouri for 2019.   With more than 300 physicians on staff representing more than 70 specialties, Freeman provides cancer care, heart care, neurology and neurosurgery, orthopedics, children’s services and women’s services. Additionally, Freeman is the only Children’s Miracle Network Hospital in a 70-mile radius. For more information, visit

Rebuilding America:What will healthcare, hospitals look like after COVID-19?