Clayton County rural hospitals make changes to services, buildings due to COVID-19 lessons

Published: Jun. 30, 2021 at 9:02 PM CDT
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CLAYTON COUNTY, Iowa (KCRG) - MercyOne Elkader Medical Center’s CEO said the hospital is one of the smallest in Iowa, which means staff worried about how they would be able to serve Clayton County’s 18,000 residents in a pandemic.

“Being small has its set of challenges,” CEO Brooke Kensinger said. “Thinking about how to plan for and prepare for a surge knowing we had 25 beds in a very small facility.”

Kensinger said, knowing other patients might have been filling up the bigger regional centers, they had to be prepared to treat patients right in Elkader.

”Our strategy from the beginning was to stabilize the patient and get them, if they were ventilated, to a higher level of care,” she explained. “But we were prepared to ventilate patients for long-term if needed.”

They also partnered with other nearby hospitals, like Guttenberg Municipal Hospital & Clinics (GMHC).

”I feel like we worked well together,” nurse Sarah Wille said. “We definitely collaborated as a team. I think, even from the kitchen staff, to housekeeping, everyone just really stepped up and made sure that we could provide the best quality care to our patients that they deserve.”

Doctor Jeff Hoffmann, who works as a physician at GMHC, said they are making some permanent changes to the hospital because of the pandemic, like making respiratory therapy more available.

”Respiratory therapy was never 24 hours, now we have 24-hour respiratory therapists and will continue because their services were phenomenal and then we have the long-termers with COVID that we are always going to have,” he explained. Hoffmann mentioned that, for the time being, they will also continue wearing masks inside the hospital. He said, since they have been wearing them, they have reported zero influenza cases in either the hospital nor the clinics.

In MercyOne Elkader, staff is using funds from the CARES Act to enhance the building to better prepare it for future emergencies: they are renovating their lab.

”So that we are able to test and draw blood of patients with an external-facing door so that we do not bring those infectious patients into our facility and potentially harm other patients or expose them to the virus,” Kensinger explained.

Both Hoffmann and Kensinger agreed the pandemic has elevated the need for more health care professionals in rural hospitals. Doctor Hoffmann commented nurses at GMHC have been working in all departments.

“Our nurses here, they have to do everything,” he punctuated. “They cannot just be in the pediatric floor or the surgical floor, they have to be in the ER, they have to be in the floor and treat all kinds of patients.”

Kensinger said MercyOne Elkader has not felt any particular strain in staffing, but she recognized they had to send some of their staff to help out at other hospitals and clinics during the past year.

“That is definitely a challenge,” she added. “It is not only nurses, it is lab techs, it is radiology techs, it is paramedics.”

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