Tahoe Forest Health prepares for COVID-19 surge
Special to the Sierra Sun
As COVID-19 case numbers surge across the country, health officials in North Lake Tahoe brace themselves for impact.
However, they have a little more equipment this time.
Tahoe Forest Health System CEO and President Harry Weis said the new peaks are daunting, but significantly less formidable than they were in March, when the first case of COVID-19 in California was reported in Placer County.
“We’re reviewing data around us and we do believe we can handle census surge,” Weis said.
Katie Combs Prichard, the Placer County health and human services public information officer, said Truckee’s OptumServe sites have been fully booked.
Combs Prichard said a request to add a lane of service to administer more tests and meet the growing need was recently approved.
“They can do 132 tests a day right now, but lately there’s increased demand,” Combs Prichard said. “We still encourage folks to go to their health care providers first.”
As of Tuesday Weis said 5% to 6% of Tahoe Forest Health System’s COVID-19 tests were coming back positive, which is significantly lower than the surrounding areas.
Weis said the two different brands his health system uses for rapid tests — BioFire and Abbott, for symptomatic and asymptomatic patients, respectively — have helped the heath care provider meet the rising needs of its community. Weis said the hospital has also acquired Remdesivir, a prescription medication used to treat the virus.
Weis said the North Lake Tahoe region’s COVID-19 case numbers remain manageable amidst the surge, so far.
“The one issue we are observing is that hospitals to the east and west of us are pretty full, so if there’s a patient that needs higher acuity care it’s a little bit more difficult to get that done,” Weis said.
Weis said part of keeping the hospital’s overall numbers low means supporting patients through health crises besides the virus.
MENTAL HEALTH CHALLENGES REMAIN
Weis said although his institution continues to work closely with officials in Nevada, Placer and Washoe counties, the hospital’s concerns extend beyond the public health department’s priorities.
“We as a health care system have to look at all physical and mental health issues,” Weis said. “We have to make sure all diseases get timely, thorough treatment. That’s so critical.”
Weis said part of his team’s concerns with all facets of human health helps ensure the limited number of beds in the ICU, 25, go to patients with the most physically pressing needs.
“We really urge patients to focus on positive mental health activities, so that our space is available for other diseases,” Weis said.
Weis said the hospital had a significant number of patients brought in over the last month for involuntary holds.
“This means that they have a level of mental unstability, the wear and tear of life and the pandemic appears to be increasing,” Weis said.
Weis said the indicators extend beyond the increasing number of people on suicide watch.
“It’s very clear that the nine months of stress and strain of this pandemic is really wearing on residents in the region, because we’re seeing excess alcoholic beverage consumption resulting in patients becoming ill and admitted to ICU to detox, and those kinds of things,” Weis said.
Weis estimated that patients with mental challenges grew 25% compared to November 2019.
Weis said the pandemic’s economic fallout affected hospitals across the country, resulting in furloughs and layoffs.
“We focus on being a great employer during tough times and good times,” Weis said. “We made it a point to not cause any other economic harm to our team members.”
Weis said he is proud to be part of an institution that not only supported its employees throughout the crisis, but expanded.
“We have grown our mental health practitioner team,” Weis said. “We added two skilled psychiatric nurse practitioners, but we’re still booked out about two weeks for non-emergent patients.”
Weis said his team is taking steps for success in the short- and long-term sense.
“We’re stressing that people really need to mask when they’re out and about, physical distance, wash hands,” Weis said.
Weis said herd immunity is accomplished by people getting the disease and creating the antibodies to fight it. Weis said the annual flu vaccine has a limited success rate, so its likely the COVID-19 vaccines will not be full proof.
That said, Weis hopes to begin proactive efforts to protect the North Lake Tahoe community by helping administer vaccines to high-priority patients in the first six months of 2021.
“We can create an additional level of comfort and peace that people have been longing for months,” Weis said. “It’s gonna be a big, big job. The scale that we need to carry out between December and June is a huge endeavor for county public health.”
Scott Oxarart, public information officer with the Washoe County Public Health District, said as developments are made with vaccinations, the county continues to take direction from the state, day by day.
“The health district has a division of public health that devises worst case scenarios and response plans,” Oxarart said. “Part of that is vaccine distribution.”
Oxarart said the news about the efficacy of the two vaccines in trial are positive, and anticipates the state using the drive-thru method to distribute.
“We’ll have them at our test site and places where people can get to,” Oxarart said. “We’re not focused on the vaccine in general for now, though. When the state tells us, we will go.”
Rebecca O’Neil is a staff writer for the Sierra Sun and The Union, a sister publication of the Sun.
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