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How Iowa Hospitals Are Preparing For COVID-19 Patients

Lindsey Moon
IPR File
An exam room at the University of Iowa Hospital, which has had a handful of COVID-19 cases.

Iowa now has over 120 confirmed cases of COVID-19 spread across more than two dozen counties with numbers increasing every day, and across the state, hospitals are preparing for a possible influx of patients.

Joanne Roepke-Bode said COVID-19 preparations have long been underway at the Kossuth Regional Health Center.

"One of the biggest tasks we've taken on is preparing a space in our hospital just to see respiratory patients," she said.

Roepke-Bode is the public relations manager for the hospital, which like the majority of the state’s hospitals is considered critical access. It has just 25 beds and small staff.

She said that means that even though the hospital has yet to see a COVID-19 case, it needs to be ready. 

"I think all hospitals across Iowa are knowing that the inevitable thing is that a lot of patients will end up starting walking through our door," she said.

The hospital has started ordering extra personal protective equipment - like masks and gloves - and requested extra ventilators -- none of which are guaranteed to arrive, Roepke-Bode said.

"We do realize that just because requests are being made, doesn't necessarily mean we'll get those things," she said.

She said the hospital also started asking the community for donations.

"They're bringing us extra gloves, extra masks, some of our science and classrooms in the area and schools are closed. They've said, 'We've got gloves, we've got goggles,'" Roepke-Bode said.

At the Clarke County Hospital in Osceola, spokesman Tom Bales said the hospital feels prepared -- for now -- with four or five ventilators. But he says they’re also trying to get more protective equipment on hand. 

"I think all hospitals across Iowa are knowing that the inevitable thing is that a lot of patients will end up starting walking through our door." - Joanne Roepke-Bode, Kossuth County Health Center

"Fortunately have a great materials guy who has not necessarily stockpiled, but readied us for this situation," he said. "Although we still are in need like most other hospitals are as well."

Bales says the hospital - which is also critical access - has put a lot of emphasis on community prevention efforts -- like social distancing and hand washing. He says that’s because they need to limit the number of cases. 

"We're limited to 25 beds and so, you know, we really need to make sure that this is a controlled -- when it when it does come -- it is a controlled spread, frankly," Bales said.

So far, Johnson County has had the highest number of confirmed cases in the state. 

University of Iowa Hospital CEO Suresh Gunasekaran said they’ve only had a handful of COVID-19 in-patients, but they’re working to potentially expand their nearly 200 ICU beds and critical care capabilities.

"Ultimately, in the end, it's not just space that we need to have, but we need to have staffing and equipment," he said.

Gunasekaran said that’s why they’re also trying to stockpile additional protective equipment -- with little luck.

"Some of those orders come in quickly. And some of those core orders come in late and some of them come in never. And so that's the process that we're going through," he said. "And that's really, honestly, what it's like to run a hospital in America today."

But he said when it comes to preparation for COVID-19, hospitals are flying blind. There’s really no way to know what the demand will actually be.

"The real unknown is how well are all the efforts that we have around social distancing around hand hygiene around staying at home these other things going to help flatten the curve," Gunasekaran said.

He said it’s also hard to predict where a surge could happen. That’s why all hospitals need to be prepared.

"If we have a large surge in patients, this is a test of our entire health care system -- not an individual hospital," he said.

As of Tuesday, 17 Iowans were hospitalized with COVID-19. 

Support for Natalie Krebs' health reporting come from the Mid-Iowa Health Foundation

Natalie Krebs is IPR's Health Reporter