Cherokee Nation activates COVID-19 surge plan 

12/25/2020 02:00 PM
TAHLEQUAH – On Dec. 23, officials with Cherokee Nation Health Services activated the tribe’s COVID-19 surge plan for W.W. Hastings Hospital.   

The surge plan involved purchasing and allocating resources for the ability to provide care during the pandemic in the event that health system exceeded the limits of its normal infrastructure. With COVID-19 cases increasing to more than 8,200 since March, the health system has experienced an “overwhelming number of hospitalized patients” in the intensive care unit, officials said.

“Back in March, our team started working on a surge plan in the event that we started reaching our hospital bed capacity,” Dr. R. Stephen Jones, Health Services executive director, said. “Recently, we’ve had challenges when transferring patients to other facilities due to their own capacity limitations. When we are full and when our partner facilities are full, we have to act to continue caring for our patients.  

“W.W. Hastings Hospital began reaching its capacity of 49 beds in early November and with the increased number of cases has become overwhelmed,” Jones added.
The surge plan has allowed an increased capacity of approximately 50% to the ICU beds in the hospital. As the surge progresses, Health Services officials may be required to engage staff from other CN health centers to aid in caring for hospitalized COVID-19 patients.  

“We are utilizing all of our resources to assist in this surge,” said Jones. “It is our mission to continue providing quality care to our patients while keeping them close to home. We understand that it puts pressure on families when their loved ones are not cared for locally. Our health leadership is constantly monitoring our current capacity and looking ahead to decide when to initiate the next phase.”  

Dr. Seth Yandell, Hastings Hospital chief of the hospitalist department, said he urges the community to do its part to prevent the spread of COVID-19 since the hospital’s ICU beds are full on nearly a daily basis. 

“Having personally treated over 400 patients hospitalized with pneumonia caused by COVID-19, I have seen the physical and emotional impact of this disease,” he said. “I have seen patients struggling to breathe who had no history of lung disease, smoking, or other issues to previously affect their ability to breathe. I have seen the impact of having to send patients home on oxygen with continued shortness of breath, that for many patients will be a lifelong condition. I have held patient’s hands while explaining that we needed to put them on a ventilator to try to save their life. I’ve had to deliver the terrible news to families that their loved ones did not survive despite all possible treatments being given. I’ve had to watch my staff struggle with the despair and the feeling of helplessness when despite every possible effort being made their patient’s condition continued to worsen and they didn’t survive. I have grieved the loss of a colleague, mentor, and friend, who didn’t survive his fight with COVID-19.” 

CN Chief of Staff Todd Enlow said the tribe has warned communities about the dangers of COVID-19 spreading and its impact it could have on the tribe’s health system.

“We have asked citizens to frequently wash their hands, wear masks and social distance,” Enlow said. “Overwhelming our health system is something we have desperately tried to avoid. I urge everyone to keep safe for the sake of those who care for us.” 

Amid implementing the surge plan, Health Services began its first phase for vaccinating against COVID-19.  

“The vaccine does bring us hope as we move forward, but it’s important to understand that the vaccine alone will not end the pandemic, but it is another layer of defense on top of masks, social distancing and all the other safety measures we have in place,” Executive Medical Director Dr. Roger Montgomery said. “Because we currently have a limited number of doses, we are making sure that our most vulnerable populations such as healthcare workers, first responders, and those who are high risk are being identified and contacted to receive the vaccine first. We are planning to receive more vaccine so that we can vaccinate each tier group as it becomes available.” 

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