The sound of a bell rung 12 times and echoed through Evangelical Community Hospital on March 12, and in those moments any work not considered essential had stopped.
Employees stood in silence in two separate remembrances and reflected on the impact COVID-19 had on the Lewisburg hospital over the past year. March 13, a Saturday, marked one year since hospital administration activated its emergency command structure and declared a pandemic.
“This last year we’ve been through some of the darkest moments I can ever recall in my decades of health care work; but, through it all, I’ve been buoyed by the moments of compassion, kindness, and resiliency I’ve witnessed across this organization,” Kendra Aucker, president and CEO, Evangelical, said in a statement about the anniversary.
“We needed to find ways to honor those moments while being respectful of the magnitude of this anniversary,” Aucker said.
Evangelical and Geisinger hospitals played a predictably central role in an unpredictable health crisis. Hospital staff took what little information was available at the outset of the pandemic and treated symptomatic patients diagnosed with COVID-19. They continued to do so as information about the virus and treatment evolved.
Evangelical conducted more than 36,000 tests, cared for nearly 800 hospitalized patients with more than 700 discharged, and administered more than 10,000 doses of vaccine. There were 87 patients who died of the disease at the hospital.
Geisinger administered 357,117 tests combined across its entire hospital system, with 128,534 administered in the central region: Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Geisinger-Shamokin Area Community Hospital in Coal Township, Geisinger-Bloomsburg Hospital in Bloomsburg. Of those tests, 41,363 returned positive with 13,269 in the central region; 4,640 hospitalized, 1,843 in the central region; 3,390 discharged, 1,329 in central; 716 deaths, 291 in central; 184,743 doses administered, 50,887 in central.
Staff at both hospitals screened patients for symptoms. Swabbed nostrils to test for the disease. Measured oxygen levels. Monitored ventilators for patients who struggled to breathe on their own. Changed into and out of isolation gear time and again. Connected isolated patients with loved ones by phone and tablet. Held the hands of dying patients and broke word to those they left behind.
And then they left for home and tended to their own needs and that of their family, all the while practicing care not to literally take their work home with them once their shift ended. For some, that proved impossible, leading to themselves and others under their roofs contracting the disease and hopefully at the very least, self-quarantine for as much as two weeks.
2020 wasn’t easy.
“Health care has changed dramatically and out of necessity since March of 2020. I’m proud of our whole team at Geisinger for acting quickly, making adjustments, and always keeping the patients at the center of our care. They are heroes and deserve every kind word and praise they receive and more,” Megan Brosious, interim chief administrative officer, Geisinger’s central region, said.
Evangelical and Geisinger took on a surge in confirmed COVID-19 cases last spring, were relieved by a summertime lull in transmission and in late fall were again met with a surge that carried into winter and didn’t relent until after the new year.
Statewide hospitalizations peaked at 6,346 on Dec. 16, far above the approximate peak of 2,600 last spring. Across the Geisinger system, the peak was 199 on Jan. 5. Evangelical’s peak was 63 on Jan. 23-24.
Staff at both hospitals hunted down scarce and necessary gear like isolation gowns as stores of personal protective equipment rapidly emptied early in the pandemic. They implemented strict limits on visitation and maintained lengthy delays on non-emergent surgeries and procedures that helped preserve resources but greatly cut into operating revenue. Evangelical would go on to temporarily furlough about 400 employees considered non-essential. Both hospitals maintained patient care through telemedicine visits by computer and phone.
Geisinger developed its own virus test and Evangelical eventually would, too; both set up auxiliary test sites. Supplies to administer tests and conduct the lab work were scarce, too, a theme that would later repeat again when vaccines became available.
“The pandemic has upended the American health care system, but it’s also given hospitals and health systems the unique opportunity to innovate. Everything we do is about making better health easier and we learned many lessons. Programs like mail-order pharmacy and telehealth visits were key to Geisinger continuing to provide care to patients during these challenging times. These programs were already strategic priorities at Geisinger, but the pandemic fueled their growth,” Brosious said.