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LVHN CEO warns “We are two weeks behind Manhattan.”

The Lehigh Valley is looking to our health care organizations to provide leadership and answers during the coronavirus pandemic.

“Nothing is off the table.”-LVHN President and CEO Brian Nester – PHOTO/FILE PHOTO

Dr. Brian Nester, president and CEO of Lehigh Valley Health Network, is tasked with making decisions that will best protect the health of patients, staff and community, during what may be the worst public health crisis the United States has seen in a century.

Lehigh Valley Business reached out to Nester to talk with him about the heavy weight of that responsibility.

He opened up about a possible timeline for the peak of the virus, why testing times need to be improved, and why more aggressive measures are needed to stop the spread.

LVB:  Are you feeling the weight of the concerns of the entire Lehigh Valley right now? What is it like to be responsible for the health of so many during a public health crisis like this?

It is a responsibility that we take seriously. In many ways health systems are built to handle something like this. Behind the scenes we are always training for mass disasters. When a disaster does strike, we activate those resources. We have what is called an Emergency Operations Center. Two weeks ago, we activated the E.O.C. and 85 LVHN members mobilized across the network.

We call this a catastrophe of natural proportion. In a disaster like 9/11, we might mobilize part of our staff. All of our staff are mobilized right now.

LVB: In New York City, retired health care workers are being called upon to volunteer to help an overwhelmed health care system as the number of coronavirus cases soars. Will that be something LVHN will consider if needed?

Nothing is off the table. We are in week three of this outbreak locally. Day 15. What will we need to do at day 115? It’s hard to say right now. It feels like we are two weeks behind Manhattan in terms of spread and seriousness.

Right now we are looking at a redeployment strategy. We’ve shut down physical therapy, which allows us to relocate our physical therapy staff to help with COVID-19. We will redeploy as much as possible, but expect that will also become depleted eventually.

LVB: Are there plans in place for emergency make -shift hospitals if there is a shortage of hospital beds?

We don’t see that as practical right now. We are looking at redistributing care and turning an LVHN hospital into a pure critical care facility.

That said, we have identified an inventory of warehouses where we could hold those with low level illness in what might be called a make-shift hospital.

LVB: What are the plans if there is a shortage of supplies, ventilators…etc?

 We have developed a specific plan. Right now, we know that we have 40 people on mechanical ventilation.  We can survive a two times increase in that right now, and we have already purchased and leased more that will be available to us in the near future.

LVB: What is your plan to treat non-COVID- 19 related emergencies during this crisis? Can patients still walk into an ER and expect to receive prompt care if their emergency is non-coronavirus related?

Absolutely. They should not delay treatment if they are dealing with a non-Covid-19 emergency. Our ER’s are open for business.

LVB: What measures are in place to protect the physical health of LVHN staff during this time?

Last week we moved to have all staff provided with and required to wear masks and eye protection. We are checking temperatures of all hospital employees as soon as they come in to work.

People in health care are inspiring in times like these. They rally and help each other.

LVB: The number of confirmed cases of coronavirus will rise as testing increases. How long does it take to get test results back?

As of today LVHN has 61 total cases of COVID 19 diagnosed. Less than ten of those are in the hospital. 4,300 tests have been taken and 3,000 have not been yet returned with a diagnosis. Testing in the United States has been a disaster.

We are sending out 500 to 600 new tests each day and it is taking eight days to get results. A percentage of these tests will come back positive and we don’t have those numbers yet.

Tests that we do here at LVHN in the hospital, we can get those results back within 12 hours.

LVB: Is there a message that you want to get out right now to the public?

The governor did the right thing to enforce social distancing. He made the right decision at the right time. The time will come soon to make even more aggressive decisions.

Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey are in the top 10 densely populated regions in the United States. We all know that New York is in the midst of a catastrophe with the coronavirus right now.

I think, and this is just my personal opinion, that it would be prudent to stop interstate travel, to stop the busses travelling from Pennsylvania into New York every day.

This is a time to practice extreme social isolation. As of week two, we were double where we were in week one.  I would like to say that we will see a plateau in mid to late April, but I cannot say for sure. At a minimum though, we are looking at four to five months of this.

By and large the community is listening to direction. People are staying home. The community is taking it seriously. In tough times, we stand together.

We will overcome.  We will get there. The question is how well will we do it?

Dawn Ouellette Nixon
Dawn Ouellette Nixon is a career journalist who believes that good journalism can change the world. As the health care reporter, she covers everything from small town medicine to big pharma. You can also find her chasing a good business story in Berks County. She can be reached at dnixon@bridgetowermedia.com. or 610-807-9619, extension 4118.

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