Talking COVID over lunch

Michaela Schulte, lower-right, an Internal Medicine Specialist with St. Luke’s Health System, shares vaccination information with participants of the Fruitland Chamber of Commerce luncheon on Wednesday. The luncheon topic was the state of COVID-19 in the area, and the related response by local medical authorities.

FRUITLAND — While members of the Fruitland Chamber of Commerce are still not able to meet in person for lunch due to Idaho’s current COVID-19 guidelines, they were able to meet over zoom for a virtual luncheon on Wednesday. The topic of this meeting was the state of local response to COVID-19, as well as progress on distribution of available vaccines.

The luncheon was conducted by Annie Knudsen, newly-elected Chairwoman of the chamber Board of Directors. Following is a sample of the information given during the luncheon.

Dina Ellwanger, chief nursing officer for Saint Alphonsus in Ontario, told those in attendance that the pandemic has resulted in a “new culture” within hospital facilities.

“We had to actually go back to previous years, determine how many procedures we did, which we track all the time, and then when we decided to start doing surgeries again [in May] we could not go any more than 50 percent of our previous volume,” said Ellwanger. “[State officials] wanted to make sure that if we had a surge of COVID-positive patients come in that our hospital could absorb that, so they would not allow us to ramp back up on surgeries.”

Even with the winter increase in cases, Ellwanger said the Ontario hospital hasn’t had to turn away any COVID patients or shut down elective surgeries. The Ontario hospital has capacity for 38 patients and has never reached that capacity, said Ellwanger. She said the hospital had 24% available capacity as of Wednesday. 

Ellwanger praised Oregon state officials for their efforts to enable limited visitation to patients within the state through Executive Order 20-22 in April 2020.

“I give kudos to this state,” said Ellwanger. “This state did open up visitation for patients in our hospital, they did allow us to open up visitation by one visitor per patient, that a lot of the other states didn’t allow.”

The one visitor rule remains in effect, with exceptions for patients considered to be in their ‘end stage’ or pediatric patients.

Ellwanger also mentioned that the hospital remains financially affected by the reduced surgery capacity as well as requirements for personal protective equipment.

“There’s some perception in the community  that with the CARES Act that the health care facilities are getting all this money and all that, while in fact it’s not helping us financially because we also have to make sure we meet all the guidelines of the pandemic,” Ellwanger said. 

The sleep lab and pulmonary function testing resumed operations in October, she added. The hospital has performed 300 vaccinations, with another 300 scheduled through Jan. 22.

Ellwanger notes that vaccine distribution relies on which state a worker does at least 50% of their work in.

Michaela Schulte, an internal medicine specialist with St. Luke’s Health System, explained that because the available vaccines rely on messenger ribonucleic acid (mRNA), patients cannot contract COVID-19 through them.

“[They’re] really a technology that’s been around for some time, but as the vaccine they haven’t been distributed or approved yet,” said Schulte. “That is probably really because that the diseases they’ve been trying to target really didn’t meet the level of attention that … warranted that development.”

She noted that one such vaccine was under development for the SARS virus in 2003, but was halted when SARS was brought under control.

Schulte said that while vaccination being made available may allow the public to gradually step away from most restrictions, some pandemic practices are likely here to stay.

“Certainly during certain seasons; In the late 80s and early 90s, when we were drawing blood we were not routinely using gloves,” was one example Schulte cited. “As providers, as nurses, as caregivers that we will be wearing masks, we will be asking our patients to wear masks at certain times. It’s probably going to be the case.”

Schulte said St. Luke’s has been able to manage caseloads during the holiday season in a way that allowed them to avoid crisis standards of care for the moment, but she remains vigilant about case counts over the next several weeks.

“I am only holding my breath right now I don’t think that there’s a sigh of relief at this point; We haven’t even touched base around the new strain [B117] that is emerging and what that might mean.”

Irene Winters, chief nursing officer with Valley Family Health Care, advised those present to read up on COVID-19 vaccines, to learn about their possible side effects before they become available to their assigned group of recipients.

“The best thing that you can do is to take the time to educate yourselves and your employees on the vaccines,” said Winters. “There are many populations and individuals that are very fearful and misinformed about the COVID vaccine and still COVID in general, which is surprising. When people are making the choice on whether to vaccinate or to not vaccinate, that choice needs to be based on valid information.”

Winters suggested the Centers for Disease Control website, as well as the Pfizer and Moderna websites for such information. She also expressed optimism for getting back to normal later this year, with vaccines becoming available around April or May.

Knudsen, who is also operations and outreach specialist for the Prescription Pad in Fruitland, said the pharmacy is in line to administer COVID-19 vaccines once they become available.

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