With surge in the past, Mercy Hospital Ardmore still dealing with pandemic

Michael D. Smith
The Daily Ardmoreite

In the first weeks of this year, several southern Oklahoma counties were among the worst-hit in the nation by COVID-19. The pandemic had put dozens of patients in the hospital as staff struggled to care for them and others with maladies that would have occurred regardless of the novel coronavirus. 

Mercy Hospital Ardmore President Daryle Voss said this week started drastically different than every other week in 2021 so far. 

“I think we’ve got a couple of rule-outs right now in the building, but we have no COVID patients on the floor. You contrast that to Jan. 10 where we had 64 patients in the building with COVID,” he said on Monday. 

Things at the Ardmore hospital are slowly returning to normal but are not quite there yet. Mask requirements and temperature screenings are still in place, and visitation remains limited. Those providing direct and indirect patient care feel some relief now that vaccines offer another layer of protection from the disease, but the pandemic is still a part of every work day. 

“There’s always a sense of ‘it can happen again at any moment’ in the back of everybody’s mind,” said Paula Pfau, a nursing director at the Ardmore hospital that oversees nurses in ICU, emergency and respiratory therapy. 

Staff at Mercy Hospital Ardmore care for patients in the intensive care unit in this undated photo provided by a hospital spokesperson during a January surge in COVID-19 cases. After spiking to 64 patients on Jan. 10, a hospital official said Monday, March 15, 2021 that no COVID-19 patients were receiving care at the hospital.

That is because only about eight weeks ago her departments’ staff were facing the brunt of a historic pandemic. Coworkers across the hospital at the time not only dealt with the direct effects of the disease, but working under constant threat made every workday challenging for weeks on end. 

“At the very beginning of COVID, we thought it was going to be a sprint but it turned out to be a marathon,” said Mercy Hospital Ardmore Director of Mission David “Puddy” Agans. “When you can finally take a break and take a breather, I think everybody feels that,” he said. 

The first few months of the pandemic saw only a handful of COVID-19 cases in the county. It wasn’t until the fall that numbers at the Ardmore hospital steadily climbed with every passing week. 

"It was a slow build for us and there was a point in June when we had converted 30 or 40 rooms to be negative-air rooms,” Voss said. “I thought this could be like Y2K, we overbuilt this thing and it’s going to be a bump in the night. Maybe that was wishful thinking.” 

Mercy Hospital Ardmore on Saturday, Nov. 21, 2020. Carter County and other southern Oklahoma counties were among the top 10 counties in the nation for new cases of COVID-19 per 100,000 people in January as the Ardmore hospital was treating 64 COVID-19 patients on Jan. 10.

As the number of COVID-19 cases climbed over 30 and 40 through November, some services were reduced or closed entirely to reallocate staff and equipment. Personal protective equipment that was in short supply in the pandemic’s early weeks eventually became available, but suddenly staff and equipment became scarce. Scores of staff started falling ill with the disease but the hospital’s workload did not relent. 

Before the pandemic, emergency department director Dr. Nate Claver would get upset if three or more patients were waiting in his department for a bed elsewhere in the hospital. On Jan. 10, every one of his department's 17 rooms were holding patients. Health care workers were seeing patients in hallways and the emergency room lobby. 

Two months out from the pandemic's biggest local surge and Claver still has the same standards along with a new perspective. 

“I think it made me appreciate the normal times of my job much more. Now I have a better understanding of how bad things can really get," said Claver. "Some of the petty stuff I used to get upset with and frustrated by, that is now not a big deal.” 

As more patients with COVID-19 were admitted, the disease spread amongst hospital workers and put an even bigger strain on the already beleaguered hospital. Upwards of three dozen employees were out on any given day during the surge. 

“When you have 30 people out, other people have to pick up that slack because we still have patients that are sick and work that still needs to be done,” Agans said. 

Employees powered through the work days in January and Voss said many did not know just how bad the hospital’s situation was. National media outlets and health agencies tracking the pandemic on a county-by-county basis noted by Jan. 9 that Carter County was among the hardest hit in the nation by the pandemic. 

“We saw that we had cracked the top ten highest rate of infection per 100,000 – top ten counties in the United States – and oh my gosh, somebody validated the fact that we were in it in a big way,” Voss said. 

Voss said that multiple factors have played into the rapid decline in COVID-19 cases being treated locally. With vaccine rollouts protecting the most vulnerable in the population, Voss said efforts by the Chickasaw Nation and Oklahoma State Department of Public Health have also been instrumental for testing and vaccinations.  

Voss also praised the Ardmore City Commission for approving a mask mandate in November and questioned how much worse the January COVID-19 spike would have been without it. But with all of the science-driven decisions made to reign in a pandemic, some of the most helpful efforts were made by average community members. 

“I can’t imagine if we had been in a vacuum here doing what we did over the last 11 months without hearing from our community, without getting cards from kids at school – we've got pies showing up today – I think it really put wind in our sails,” Voss said. 

Community members gathered outside of Mercy Hospital Ardmore Thursday, Jan. 21, 2021, to pray for medical workers and patients. Hospital staff said this week that community support was instrumental in working through the January surge in COVID-19 patients.

Pfau also noted how treat bags from area schools lifted the spirits of many on her nursing staff and said that community prayer events gave some staff members the emotional strength to work through the height of a pandemic.  

But even with vaccination rates increasing, new cases dropping and the area’s largest hospital recovering from the intense spike in COVID-19 cases, the times before the pandemic are still unrecognizable. 

“When we are finally able to pull our masks down, that’s going to be something else because everybody knows everybody by their eyes now,” said Pfau.