Preparing for the pandemic: Drive-thru site tests 106 for virus as healthcare workers manage limited resources

Michael Smith
Nurses approach a vehicle during a drive-thru coronavirus testing site in Ardmore on Thursday. More than 100 people were tested in the Ardmore Convention Center parking lot.

Carter County’s healthcare system is relying on multiple resources and measures to prepare for the potential spread of COVID-19. While confirmed virus cases in southern Oklahoma have remained relatively few compared to more populated counties, a drive-thru testing site in Ardmore on Thursday will soon provide a more accurate picture of area infections.

Reallocated beds and visitor restriction policies are recent changes made by Mercy Hospital Ardmore to respond to the global pandemic. The hospital’s access to the larger Mercy Hospital network is also being supplemented with equipment from area businesses not otherwise associated with healthcare.

These measures are being undertaken to ensure the local healthcare system can provide care for all patients — regardless of a coronavirus-related ailment — in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak in the area

The Oklahoma State Department of Health on Thursday said the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases statewide jumped 22% to 871. The number of confirmed coronavirus-related deaths in the state also climbed to 34 on Thursday, with a death being reported from Stephens County.

According to the Carter County Department of Health, 116 people visited the drive-thru testing site at the Ardmore Convention Center on Thursday. Of those, 106 tests were administered to individuals who were over 18-years-old, an Oklahoma resident, and exhibited COVID-19 symptoms.

State health department spokesperson Julie Williamson said those who were tested on Thursday remained in their vehicles and the only personnel to interact with patients were nurses with protective gear. She said test results are expected back within 24 to 48 hours.

According to Williamson, the total number of tests conducted in Carter County is currently unavailable due to some laboratories not reporting the number of negative test results.

Gov. Kevin Stitt on Wednesday said Okalhoma will need up to 6,800 hospital beds to treat coronavirus patients at the peak of the pandemic but acknowledged that the timeframe of that peak remains unclear. Little more than 1,700 beds are potentially available for virus patients statewide, according to the Associated Press.

Mercy Hospital Ardmore spokesperson Lindsey Kidd said 190 total beds are at the Ardmore campus. That is more than the 150 acute licensed beds available in fiscal year 2019, according to the hospital’s website. Those numbers do not necessarily reflect the number of beds available at any given time, however.

“It is difficult to provide a specific bed count as the count fluctuates hourly based on the needs of our patients and daily discharges,” Kidd said in an email.

In an effort to make as many beds available as possible, Mercy Hospital Ardmore last month announced elective surgeries would be postponed for the foreseeable future. “By postponing elective procedures, Mercy will be able to repurpose resources and our medical team for COVID-19-related illnesses,” said Kidd.

The practice of social distancing has been urged by health officials and is being aided by government actions to limit public gatherings. Social distancing is a public effort to “flatten the curve,” a reference to a graph showing a potential surge in viral infections that could cripple local healthcare systems.

For Mercy Hospital Ardmore, that curve must stay well below the 190 beds available if healthcare services are to remain unaffected by the pandemic.

In the event of a surge in respiratory illnesses that require ventilators, Mercy Hospital Ardmore will still rely on equipment across the hospital network in four states. Kidd said the hospital has ordered additional ventilators in addition to what is already available within the hospital network.

“We have 472 ventilators across Mercy, with less than 40% in use right now. We have dozens of portable units that are not currently in use and could be quickly moved to patients who need them,” said Kidd.

The resources needed go beyond just beds, staff and ventilators. A nationwide shortage of personal protective equipment has prompted local anesthesiologist Dr. Johnny Thomas to procure reusable respirators and masks from outside the healthcare industry. Thomas told The Ardmoreite this week that the reusable equipment will allow disposable supplies from the hospital to be better managed.

The pinch on supplies is already being felt by local healthcare providers. “Like all hospitals, the supply chains for Personal Protective Equipment across the country have been challenged to meet the demand,” said Kidd. She said the hospital has been sourcing additional PPE but did not elaborate from where.

Jerry Graves from Cook Paint in Ardmore said he has also been approached by medical workers looking for any extra protective equipment. He recently sold his last three respirators to a local medical worker and said gloves, masks, suits and other protective equipment from his suppliers are increasingly hard to find.

Graves said he has to now make difficult business choices when having to decide between his customers’ businesses and his community’s healthcare system. “You hate to sell them because these guys use them for spraying lacquer, but we know we’ve got a problem so we sold them to (healthcare workers) at a good price,” he said.