As coronavirus spreads, hospitals and state leaders prepare for a patient surge

"We may not prevent the complete transmission of this disease, but what we’re trying to slow is the fact that we may overwhelm the health care system capacity.”

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Ambulances parked in front of the OU Medical Center emergency room. BEN FELDER/The Frontier
As the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19 spreads across Oklahoma, state and hospital leaders are bracing for a possible surge of patients ill with the virus.

The governor and Oklahoma State Department of Health are examining how prepared the state health care system is to handle a sudden increase of patients and are taking stock of hospital beds, ventilator machines and personal protective equipment such as masks.

Ventilator machines help patients breathe and can be the difference between life and death for those suffering the most severe respiratory effects of the coronavirus.

A health department spokeswoman said on Thursday that the agency was working to compile the first formal report on the data, which was mandated by an executive order that Gov. Kevin Stitt signed on Tuesday.

A spokesman for the governor’s office said on Thursday evening the state had available 210 ICU beds and 1,450 surgical beds that could be upgraded to ICU beds if needed. The state had 522 ventilators available. The data was subject to change as reports from hospitals came in, he said.

As supplies needed to run tests for COVID-19 remained sparse in the state, health officials and leaders have been united in their message: Stay home. Practice social distancing. Wash your hands.

The goal is to “flatten the curve” by slowing the spread of the virus in Oklahoma and avoid overloading the state’s health care system.

“If we don’t do things like social isolation and social distancing and other things, without those protective measures we’ll see a big spike in the number of cases and that’s what happened in China,” said Dr. Dale Bratzler, enterprise chief quality officer at OU Medicine, at a media briefing in Oklahoma City on Tuesday.

He added: “Because if we can do that, we can flatten the curve or bend the curve so that we don’t have as many cases at once. We may not prevent the complete transmission of this disease, but what we’re trying to slow is the fact that we may overwhelm the health care system capacity.”

As of the evening of March 19, the Oklahoma State Department of Health reported there were 44 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Oklahoma, and four of those patients had been hospitalized. Officials within the last week confirmed community spread of the virus in Tulsa and Oklahoma City.

Health officials on Thursday morning announced a Tulsa County man had died from the virus, the first confirmed death from COVID-19 in the state. The man, who was in his late 50s, was believed to be the first recorded case of community spread in Tulsa, officials said. He tested positive for the disease on Tuesday and died on Wednesday.

Hospitals are making preparations such as postponing nonessential surgeries, conserving medical supplies and considering outside options to house patients in the case hospitals are full.

Patti Davis, president of the Oklahoma Hospital Association, said hospitals are working with the state health department to “discuss all possibilities.”

“Hospitals across the state have activated their emergency response and surge plans and are working to prepare for worst case scenarios. These activities will be communicated to the public at the appropriate time,” Davis said in an emailed statement.

In 2018, there were 1,879 ICU beds and 13,153 total hospital beds in the state, according to the most recent Oklahoma Hospital Association survey. The survey included beds owned by tribal hospitals, Veterans Affairs, and the Oklahoma State Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, right, stands with Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell during a news conference on March 12 at the state Capitol. BEN FELDER/The Frontier

During an interview with the Oklahoma State Medical Association that was streamed on Facebook on Wednesday evening, Stitt said he spoke with the National Guard earlier that day and was forming a plan in case hospitals see a sudden surge in patients sick with COVID-19.

“We’ve got to have a plan if our hospitals are overrun,” Stitt said. 

Stitt, who declared a state of emergency over COVID-19 on Sunday, said he had been in discussions with hospital CEOs across the state about their surge plans and that his office was working to map the state’s bed availability.

“There’s some hospitals across the state that have closed that we’re looking at, there’s Tinker Air Force Base, the fair grounds, there’s tents, there’s other things that we could do,” Stitt said.

During a press conference on Wednesday, Dr. Tommy Ibrahim, chief physician executive of INTEGRIS Health, said the health system was seeing a “significant decline” in the availability of personal protective equipment, such as masks. INTEGRIS operates hospitals and clinics across the state.

Dr. David Chansolme told reporters that INTEGRIS was also seeing a shortage of swabs needed to collect specimens for testing. Chansolme is the medical director of infection prevention at INTEGRIS Health.

“We’re stealing the swabs out of our flu kits, out the OBGYN clinics — We’re taking swabs from wherever we can find them,” he said.

Stitt said the health department has a supply of masks that the state is taking inventory of.

“And it looks like I’m going to order that to be distributed around the state and get that ready and into the hands of the hospitals as well,” he said.

Kerri Bayer, chief nurse executive of INTEGRIS Health, said at the press conference that though the health care system on Wednesday was operating at a “very manageable level,” the hospital system was making preparations for a surge.

“We are working on the potential of setting up tents if we get to that need outside of our hospital system,” Bayer said. “We have identified multiple locations within our system where we could convert those areas into ICUs, we could convert those areas into med-surg units. … We’re planning for the worst and hoping for the best.”

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Kassie McClung

Staff writer

Kassie McClung joined The Frontier in May 2016. She reports on health, criminal justice and other state issues. Kassie holds a bachelors degree in multimedia journalism from Oklahoma State University. She likes dogs, maps and data. She can be reached at Kassie@readfrontier.com or 918-935-1044. Follow her on Twitter @KassieMcClung.
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