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Merit Health Natchez meeting needs in COVID-19 pandemic

NATCHEZ — As COVID-19 infection and death rates reach record proportions nationally and locally, hospitals are facing unprecedented caseloads.

In Adams County, Merit Health Natchez has been filled to capacity many times in recent months, including in the Monday, Jan. 4, Mississippi State Department of Health hospital beds availability report that showed all of the hospital’s 93 adult beds were occupied.

As of Tuesday, Jan. 5, however, five adult beds had opened up. The hospital’s eight Intensive Care Units were all occupied with six of those ICU beds being occupied with COVID-19 patients.

In all, Merit Health Natchez reported 20 confirmed COVID-19 patients in the hospital as of Tuesday, Jan. 5.

Those numbers change day-to-day, if not hour-to-hour, hospital officials said, adding that the hospital is able to accommodate all patients.

“While all of our intensive/critical care beds are fully utilized at present, the hospital does have the capacity to care for additional patients,” Lance Boyd, CEO of Merit Health Natchez, said Wednesday. 

Boyd said the hospital has been operating at a “fever pitch” since the summer.

“As you know from the Mississippi State Department of Health, COVID-19 cases increased exponentially after Labor Day and Thanksgiving, and we anticipate the same will happen soon following the Christmas and New Year’s holidays,” Boyd said.

“For these many months, we’ve continued helping women deliver their newborns, performed same-day elective surgeries and treated patients with a wide range of medical needs. Capacity changes throughout the day based on patient admissions and discharges and staffing. Any capacity updates we provide are a snapshot of a single moment in time.”

Boyd acknowledged the hospital’s ICU beds are often full, “but we have been able to care for almost double that number of ICU patients through the hard work of our staff, many of whom have cross-trained to support this ongoing surge.”

All patients will be seen

Boyd said despite the pandemic the hospital’s emergency department remains prepared to see patients.

“All who come will receive a medical screening from a qualified medical professional,” Boyd said. “Triage is used to prioritize the order in which patients are seen in the ER. If the qualified medical professional determines a patient needs a higher level of care than our hospital can provide, they are stabilized and transferred to another facility. All patient transfers across the state of Mississippi are being coordinated through MED-COM in coordination with the University of Mississippi Medical Center.”

No problem for ambulance service

Tim Houghton, operations manager for AMR ambulance service in Natchez, said his staff has not experienced any problems when working with Merit Health Natchez.

Merit Health Natchez has done a very good job of working with us,” Houghton said. “Obviously when we are extremely busy, you can look at the ER. The ER becomes extremely busy as well both on ambulance and vehicle traffic, and I have to say Lance (Boyd) and his staff over there have done a very good job of working with EMS.”

Houghton said other areas of the state, including in and around Jackson, have had issues with hospital admittance in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, but he has not had issues with admittance at Merit Health Natchez.

“Merit Health Natchez has worked with us very good not to have those problems or when they are having issues with people going in and out they have a plan,” Houghton said. “They work with us and they prioritize getting those ambulances out of there.”

COVID-19 patients

Houghton said AMR is not transporting a lot of COVID-19 patients because most of them are able to work with their private physicians and do not need transport unless their situation deteriorates.

Houghton said AMR is transporting approximately 750 to 800 cases per month, which, he said, is on par with previous years. Under the COVID-19 pandemic, however, Houghton said, the types of cases have changed.

“Basically you are swapping one priority or condition for another priority condition,” Houghton said. “Last year, we had more people on the road. There were more shoppers that were more prone for accidents and stuff like that.”

Houghton said AMR is dealing with fewer traffic accidents under COVID-19 with fewer people getting out.

“We saw an increase with sickness,” Houghton said. “Sinus situations like flus, colds, allergies and obviously COVID so the two kind of swapped out. You basically saw the same numbers but it is a different type of calls.”

Still with all of those calls in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, Houghton said he has not had problems with patients being admitted at Merit Health Natchez.

“I can’t say enough as to how effective a job they have done in helping us,” Houghton said of Merit Health Natchez. “We are working good together on getting in and out and getting those trucks back available to the public.”

Staff holding up

Houghton said his staff is holding up well despite the pandemic.

“If you ask anybody in healthcare, we will all say that we are tired, but the reality of it is that none of us are going to quit,” Houghton said. “We are going to hold the line and continue taking care of the patient, because that is what we do. The staff here is doing really good.”

Get treatment

Boyd said people should not hesitate to go to Merit Health Natchez for medical needs, emergency or otherwise, but also advises people to visit their primary care physicians.

“Primary care physicians in the community all have capacity, and it’s important for people to maintain those relationships,” Boyd said. “Particularly people who have chronic conditions such as diabetes, heart conditions and other concerns. Your family doctor can help you sustain your health and address minor issues before they become acute.”

Boyd said hope is on the horizon with two COVID-19 vaccines having received emergency use authorization from the federal government.

“It is critically important for community members to continue to observe infection prevention measures recommended by the CDC and the Mississippi Department of Health: wear masks or face covering, maintain social distancing and regularly wash your hands,” Boyd said. “We care deeply about our community, and we are very proud of our staff and their heroism as they persevere through this perfect storm.”

Boyd encourages anyone who is experiencing a medical emergency to seek care promptly.

“Call 911 to get EMS help if you’re experiencing symptoms of stroke, heart attack or another life-threatening condition,” Boyd said.

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