Penn Highlands preparing for COVID-19

Dr. Shaun Sheehan

Penn Highlands Healthcare hosted a media advisory conference on March 11 at its DuBois facility concerning the COVID-19 outbreak nationwide and what is being done in this region to prepare.

Dr. Shaun Sheehan, D.O., who specializes in emergency medicine, chaired the session. In his opening remarks, Dr. Sheehan said the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania  has 13 suspected cases of COVID-19 and two confirmed cases. Most are in the Philadelphia area, but one has been reported in the Wilkes-Barre/Scranton area.

Right now, there is no medication and no vaccination for the disease.

COVID-19, he explained, is a type or Coronavirus, as is the common cold. The SARS outbreak of 2003 as well as the MERS outbreak in 2012 were both traced to a type of Coronavirus. Dr. Sheehan used the analogy of the Coronavirus being the dog and COVID-19 being a particular breed of dog. He pointed out, however, that influenza is not a type of coronavirus.

Dr. Sheehan is heading up the Penn Highlands response, coordinating a task force that has been formed with members from all five facilities. The task force meets once or twice a week to formulate plans and procedures and to keep up to date with the latest news and information from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the Pennsylvania Department of Health

The purpose for all of this preparation, he said, was to prevent national and regional healthcare facilities from becoming overwhelmed. The hope is to “flatten the distribution curve” to allow the facilities the to absorb cases that do appear.

With that in mind, Penn Highlands is updating its policies and procedures to prepare for COVID-19. It is also updating signage at all its facilities asking people who have a fever, cough, and a “concerning travel history” not to enter those facilities. 

Other items being undertaken following CDC guidelines include:

*Updating screening forms for patient processing

*Phone scripting for Personal Care Physicians (PCP) to help screen patients

*Providing telemedicine using a phone application so patients can stay in their homes

*Updating outpatient procedures for additional screenings

*Updating long term care procedures including a screeing process for visitors.

Dr. Sheehan said the supply chain is being affected. He said Penn Highlands has enough respiratory protection and other supplies for its staff, but ordering more is not possible at this time. He added this a problem nationwide. In fact, he said, some hospitals in the country are not able to leave surgical maks and hand sanitizer out because they’re being stolen.

Surgical masks will not provide protection from COVID-19, he stated, and they can actually cause more of a health problem for the wearer. The more sophisticated types of masks also don’t work because they may not be properly fitted to the people wearing them as they are with healthcare workers.

Penn Highlands has been notified that it is now able to start testing for COVID-19 through independent laboratories, but the testing will be done following state and CDC guidelines, meaning the person must meet the criteria of fever, cough, and travel to an area of an outbreak. No tests will be conducted unless the guidelines are met to avoid overwhelming the testing facilities.

The first step a person should take, Dr. Sheehan stated,  is to follow general hygiene rules, including washing of hands, using hand sanitizer, covering coughs, and avoiding travel to infected areas. If someone gets sick, they should contact their PCP first and follow his/her advice.

Those who face the greatest risk from COVID-19 are the elderly and those with chronic medical conditions.

When asked, Dr. Sheehan said right now Penn Highlands is seeing high numbers of influenza cases at its facilities, but that is all.

Penn Highlands plans two more informational sessions. One for public safety officials is scheduled for March 16 at 6 p.m. and another for school administrators, business leaders, and others is slated for March 19 at 1 p.m. Both will be held at the Clearfield Campus of Lock Haven University.

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