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Rural hospitals prepared for the pandemic, but still waiting for the surge

Posted at 1:21 PM, Jul 10, 2020

DUNCAN, Okla. -- Rural hospitals faced unique challenges preparing for a rush of COVID-19 patients. From financial struggles to attaining PPE, smaller facilities did everything they could to get ready.

One regional hospital in Oklahoma has waited for months for coronavirus cases to flood their emergency room, but that wave of patients is just now starting to trickle in.

“We saw cases increasing, but as of now, it hasn’t come to Duncan quite like we expected,” said Dr. Michael Hemphill, a pulmonary and critical care physician and Duncan Regional’s Director of the ICU.

As coronavirus cases overload emergency rooms across the country, this rural hospital—one of few medical centers in Southern Oklahoma—has only seen a handful of cases. After the holiday weekend, their facility is starting to see cases increase.

As they wait for the surge, the fear of what would happen if beds or supplies ran out looms over the staff.

“The most difficult thing is, there’s not a lot of backup,” said Hemphill. “I’m the only pulmonogist in Duncan,” he said.

So, the hospital gathered as much personal protective equipment as possible—preparing for the worst.

Chief Nursing Officer Kristen Webb said it’s been tougher to get critical supplies as a smaller hospital.

“The last time we were able to receive N95’s was probably in December,” said Webb.

She said they needed them again come February, but were never able to fill any of the orders they placed.

When she was able to find supplies, she spent every penny she could to make sure staff would be safe.

“We probably spent close to a million dollars on equipment, PPE, or other supplies and equipment towards a pandemic that we didn’t fully realize at this point,” said Webb.

That massive expense was made tougher because the hospital had to cancel all elective procedures and appointments.

“We spent quite a bit of money at a time where we weren’t bringing in our normal resources,” said Webb.

“Rural hospitals are especially financially strained, especially here in Oklahoma, so when everything shut down…our elective procedures shut down. So, there is a financial burden the hospital had to bear,” said Dr. Hemphill.

The burden extends past these walls to Jefferson County Hospital. Duncan Regional helps the critical access hospital stay open. It’s a facility with only 18 beds that was on the verge of shutting down just a couple years ago.

But if the pandemic hits, that critical access facility and Duncan Regional are the places people will turn to. So it’s necessary these facilities maintain enough revenue to stay open so communities have access to care.