Mid-Shore hospital's COVID-19 tents sit idle for lack of staff

This modular unit for potential COVID-19 patient surge is located at University of Maryland Shore Medical Center at Easton.

EASTON — The tents set up outside University of Maryland Shore Medical Center at Easton to house COVID-19 patients are effectively unusable, according to a spokesperson for the regional hospital system, because the hospital lacks the personnel to staff them.

The two tents, one large and one smaller, were installed in April and May near the emergency department entrance to triage and accommodate coronavirus patients. Arvin Singh, Shore Regional Health vice president of strategy and communications, said the units have not been used to date.

“We just don’t have the staffing at the moment to be able to utilize them,” Singh said. The Shore hospital system reported last week a total of three admitted COVID-19 patients among all locations at Easton, Chestertown and Cambridge. All three patients were receiving care at Easton, and none required intensive care or ventilators, the hospital said.

Singh said if the Easton hospital had adequate staff to use the tents, he believes they would be in use for COVID-19 infected patients, but he said the hospital doesn’t currently need the additional units because it has remaining capacity inside.

Staffing shortages had been an issue across Shore hospitals even before the pandemic, but increased demand for care as more people contracted the virus and became ill intensified the strain — so much so that the dearth remains local health officials’ top concern in the fight against COVID-19.

“If we could take the patients we have now and put them outside in those tents to isolate them separate from the hospital, of course we would welcome that. But it comes down to the staffing challenges,” Singh said, adding, “We are more than sufficient in our current capacity.

“It’s just a little bit of an operational challenge to be able to get that going, and I believe we’re sufficient with what we have and don’t want to add an element unless we absolutely need to.”

The modular units, erected in the midst of Maryland’s first spike in COVID-19 cases, came at no cost to the hospital system and were provided by the state from its existing emergency resources stockpile, SRH spokesperson Trena Williamson told The Star Democrat.

Despite the tents being unusable and not needed at the moment, they will stay put through winter and “as long as there is a potential they could be needed,” Williamson said.

Singh assured that throughout the pandemic the hospital has “been fine” using its existing building to care for coronavirus-infected patients and “still being able to see non-COVID patients with our current model.”

“If that ever exceeded or there was a challenge there,” he said, a conversation about whether the tents should be used would be held internally, “but at the moment that has not happened or been foreseen.”

Maryland is now seeing virus-related hospitalizations, which dipped significantly between June and October, rise again to levels reported at the beginning of the pandemic. Gov. Larry Hogan said two weeks ago hospitals on Maryland’s western shore were nearing their capacity limits.

The inundation of hospitals across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge contrasts the reality of those on the Eastern Shore, which have ample capacity to admit more patients but are not equipped — staffing- or equipment-wise — to take on struggling hospitals’ patient overflow when it comes to certain patient needs.

In April, Williamson said UM Shore hospitals were accepting COVID-19 patients from more populous areas of Maryland to distribute patient weight across the hospital system. She did not say from where the three currently hospitalized patients are, but she confirmed Shore patients are being sent to hospitals off the Shore for care.

Williamson said patients are not being transferred to out-of-area hospitals on the lone basis that they are infected with the coronavirus. “To date, Mid-Shore patients have only been transferred to other hospitals based on their need for a higher level of clinical care,” she said.

“There have been a small number of patients, of varying diagnoses, that have been transferred to other locations based on staffed-bed availability, not solely because they are COVID-19 positive,” Williamson said, adding capacity has not been a factor in determining whether a patient is admitted to SRH hospitals.

“All patients who have been transferred have been so because the clinical team determined that the patient needed a higher level of care, which often means access to advanced clinical equipment, such ECMO (Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation),” she said.

Williamson said she didn’t know how many coronavirus-infected patients SRH had seen but not admitted through its emergency departments and urgent care facilities because the hospital system “does not track the positivity rate of all patients tested.”

For the past several weeks the Easton hospital’s COVID-19 patient numbers have stayed in the “single digits,” despite rising infection rates across the state and locally, according to SRH CEO Ken Kozel. Though health experts have noted that hospitalizations and deaths lag behind infection surges.

In Talbot County, specifically, the health department recorded its highest daily new case numbers to date in November, and reported just over 170 residents contracted the virus within the month. Six residents required hospitalization for COVID-19 illness in November and the county’s total death tally has remained at nine since Sept. 14, local data show.

During the virus’s peak in May, Kozel said the hospital on a daily basis was treating 20 to 25 COVID-19 patients. That the current spike in infections has exceeded Talbot County’s May virus case rates could indicate an impending rise in new hospitalizations.

As of Tuesday, Dec. 1, Talbot reported 828 residents contracted the coronavirus to date, 84 residents are actively infected, six of whom tested positive within the 24 hours prior to Tuesday.

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