Joyce Newmyer, president of Adventist Health Portland, gives us a snapshot of how one Adventist healthcare group is responding to the COVID-19 crisis, including the difficulties, challenges, and silver linings.
Question: How is the coronavirus pandemic affecting Adventist Health Portland Medical Center so far?
Answer: Portland’s close proximity to Seattle, the nation’s first hot spot for the coronavirus, gave us a fairly early look at this virus that spread rapidly throughout our country.
We are in an “all hands on deck” situation, taking action to ensure that we have the capacity to meet and overcome the anticipated surge of COVID-19 cases in the coming weeks. To protect the safety and wellbeing of clinical staff, we have rescheduled routine, non-urgent appointments. This helps promote social distancing and slows the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
As a health organization, we are here to provide education, assistance, and access to our community, especially during this outbreak. We recently launched a new COVID-19 chat tool on our website, www.adventisthealth.org, to provide a symptom checker, education, and options for a virtual visit 24/7 and information on sheltering-in-place. Our community finds this resource helpful.
Are your hospitals treating COVID-19 patients?
Yes. Adventist Health is serving both inpatients and outpatients who are infected with COVID-19. Communities are relying on us like never before. We are working around the clock to care for patients and prepare for a projected surge in patient volume. Our hospitals are taking unprecedented measures to expand our ability to care for current and anticipated COVID-19 cases, not to mention the many other urgent health care needs.
What are you doing to protect your doctors, nurses, and healthcare workers?
We are committed to protecting the health, safety, and well-being of our associates and medical staff. We have incident command centers in our hospitals responding to this crisis which help address the needs of our staff. The crisis centers are focused on procuring, distributing, and ongoing training for PPE (personal protective equipment) like masks, gloves, and gowns, ensuring highly reliable and effective cleaning and disinfecting procedures, and workflow that minimizes potential risk. We conduct these activities as normal course of business, but there is definitely a heightened intensity around our work as we focus on safety first. As part of a multi-state health system, we are able to tap into equipment and resources that are being shared between facilities to ensure appropriate protection for our staff. Our frontline teams are heroes!
Adventist Health medical facilities are not allowing any visitors during this crisis. Is that a difficult rule to enforce?
We want to keep our patients, staff, and visitors safe. In keeping with the Centers for Disease Control and state guidelines, no visitors are allowed on hospital units with the exception of obstetrics, pediatric, and hospice, which are limited to only one visitor throughout the duration of the patient's stay, to prevent the spread of COVID-19. Our patients are encouraged to use FaceTime, Skype, WhatsApp, or their preferred telephone or video chat application. We understand that when people are hospitalized or even coming in for an urgent outpatient test, they are often afraid and vulnerable, and they usually want a family member with them for support — but their health and safety is our first concern.
I encountered a couple of family members in the Adventist Health Portland emergency department parking lot who were very frustrated with being asked to leave the emergency area. I stopped to talk with them, and they immediately expressed that they understood and were appreciative of the care being provided to their loved one. It doesn’t change the frustration, but they understand why we’re taking these actions.
The Pacific Northwest was one of the first-hit regions in the United States. Do you think this means you will also be one of the first to come out on the other side?
Oregon’s incidence of COVID-19 cases is actually behind many other areas of the country, despite Seattle being one of the first outbreaks. We haven’t seen our predicted peak yet. I’ve seen several statistical models predicting the peak anywhere from mid-April to early May. In the meantime, we’ve all been in overdrive — adjusting space to make room for more beds, allocating protective equipment based on risk factors to ensure an adequate supply for the long haul, securing state and federal waivers so we can operate with flexibility to meet demands of this crisis, and ensuring our communities have access to us for care. We continue to encourage our communities to help flatten the curve and prevent the spread of this vicious virus.
How do you think Adventist hospitals, and maybe all healthcare facilities, will change permanently as a result of this crisis?
We’ve seen healthcare providers both inside and alongside our system fast forward the use of telehealth visits via both telephone and video connections. To participate in a virtual visit, a patient just needs a smartphone, tablet, or computer with a working camera and microphone. While this is not new technology and has been in place in many of our communities before this crisis, broadening its use has definitely been a stronger focus. I anticipate that while this technology will be refined over time, home and office will forever be considered new sites of care.
How do you feel the Adventist Church as a whole is responding to this crisis? Is this an opportunity, in some ways, for Adventists?
As a life-long Adventist, I’m happy to offer my observations. I’ve seen more creativity in our church during the last few weeks than perhaps ever before. The online presence of many churches has been incredible. My husband and I noticed last weekend that instead of a Sabbath School/Church experience on Sabbath morning, we attended gatherings and services most of the day because the conversations and personal connections were so engaging. The high quality and creativity was exceptional, and our hearts were definitely full.
I believe this is a huge opportunity to engage people in non-traditional fellowship. Being able to engage in study with treasured friends while being physically distant is, I hope, a new normal that will help keep people connected. I know a pastor who has been calling all of the members on his church books, whether or not they attend or he’s even met them. Most are delighted to hear from him! Who knows how many of these people will re-engage as a result of someone taking the time to connect during this time of physical distancing? With all of this said, I’m still looking forward to being able to gather in person to worship.
What lessons do hospitals and healthcare facilities need to learn to be better prepared for another crisis?
Our entire planet is learning what a global pandemic looks like and how it changes daily life dramatically. Moving people and materials around the globe within mere hours changes how we respond to what used to be localized challenges. Our system of hospitals, clinics, and home health agencies is finding new ways to coordinate our efforts and work together as a system, minimizing duplication of work. We’ll also learn more about how we consistently ensure adequate stockpiles of supplies and ways to adjust manufacturing processes, ensuring safety for the workforce and patients alike. Here in Portland, we have local partners as well as our own Adventist Health system partners, so we’re able to collaborate in multiple ways to respond to local needs.
When do you think we will all get back to normal?
I don’t think anyone knows the answer to this question. I heard an infectious disease physician say recently, “The virus decides that. Not us.” I do believe that the less physical contact and resulting exposure we have, the faster the bell curve of the contagion will flatten. Following guidelines for thorough hand hygiene and physical distancing will help us get through this faster.
What have you found to be the most surprising about this new reality? The most difficult or sad? The silver lining?
Crisis can bring out the best or worst in society. Let me start with the silver linings we are experiencing through this tragic situation. We have seen the very best in people during times of crisis. Their generosity of spirit is evident in countless ways. We’ve had donations of masks, offers to send food for our staff, and letters from neighborhood children. Our staff has run toward the crisis and those who need them, not away from them. I’ve seen courageous doctors, nurses, therapists, environmental services techs, and facilities techs stepping up to do whatever it takes to care for our communities. There is so much good in this world, and we need to celebrate that.
The most surprising thing to me is the illogical hoarding of some foods and household goods. When people are afraid, they do things that make no sense. It reminds me of the Lord’s Prayer, “Give us this day, our daily bread.” Not the whole loaf! None of us needs all of the rice, all of the toilet paper, or all of the milk. There is enough for everyone if we don’t panic.
The most difficult thing has been being physically distant from other people. We haven’t hugged our adult children or grandchildren in far too long. Even in our crisis command center we count the number of people in the room and spread out to avoid being in close proximity to one another. That feels sad to me.
We are all in this journey together and I am humbled and grateful to be part of a process designed to improve the health and wellbeing of others. I see that as a sacred calling for such a time as this.
Joyce Newmyer is president of Adventist Health Portland, and a board member of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum.
Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.
Photo courtesy of Joyce Newmyer.
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