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Jefferson County has overcome its early problems dealing with virus

Jefferson County Health Center community relations manager Wanda Bagby receives a COVID-19 test at the health center’s drive-up location. (Photo courtesy of Wanda Bagby)
Jefferson County Health Center community relations manager Wanda Bagby receives a COVID-19 test at the health center’s drive-up location. (Photo courtesy of Wanda Bagby)

FAIRFIELD – Much has changed in the way local hospitals have tackled the COVID-19 pandemic since it arrived early this year.

In March, personal protective equipment was in short supply because all of the hospitals around the country and the world needed the same material. Testing was limited to people with symptoms of the coronavirus. Elective surgeries came to a halt.

Jefferson County Health Center CEO Bryan Hunger reports that things are looking up, and that his health center has met the challenges faced in the virus’s early days. He feels better about the health center’s ability to get the protective equipment it needs compared to six months ago.

“Our materials department has done a lot of work with our vendors and has found alternate vendors to help us build that supply,” he said.

Hunger said the pandemic shined a light on the flaws in the health center’s inventory strategy, which will be tweaked in the future.

“We had a just-in-time inventory strategy, but in a pandemic where everyone wants the same thing at once, that’s not the best strategy,” he said.

Today, anybody who wants a COVID-19 test can get one at the health center. That wasn’t possible six or seven months ago when tests were severely limited.

“We had the testing machines in March, but we couldn’t get any testing kits from our vendor,” Hunger said.

The only requirement now to get a COVID-19 test is a provider order. Patients can get tested in the clinic or at the health center’s drive-up collection site.

Hunger said he understands the public’s frustration in not getting tests on demand, but the health center simply couldn’t receive enough testing kits from its vendors. Furthermore, those vendors were prioritizing health centers in areas with a large number of COVID-19 cases, and Jefferson County has been fortunate in avoiding the massive COVID-19 outbreaks seen in neighboring counties.

Test results usually come back within one or two days. Those that have to be sent to the state hygienic lab take longer, closer to five or six days. Hunger said the health center has some in-house testing capacity, though tests for it remain scarce.

“In the event we could open that up and be more available, we can get results from our in-house testing in a matter of a few hours,” Hunger said. “We’re using those kits more for in-patients who are sick, and occasionally for patients in the emergency room who need to be transferred.”

The health center has tested 1,425 people for COVID-19, and 115 of those tests came back positive for a rate of 8.1 percent. Hunger said it’s important to remember that in the early stage of the pandemic, the health center was only testing symptomatic individuals and thus the percent of positivity cases is not necessarily representative of how many people in the area have contracted COVID.

“We probably cared for 35-40 patients on our floor who had or were suspected to have COVID,” Hunger said. “We isolate them by putting them in a different wing of the health center from the other patients.”

Visitor restrictions limiting patients to no more than one visitor at a time are one of the things from the early part of the pandemic that have remained in place as a safety measure. The health center has maintained its mask requirement as well.

Elective surgeries restarted in June and July after Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds issued a proclamation opening them up after having previously stopped them. Hunger said all patients who come for a surgery at the Jefferson County hospital receive a COVID-19 test. He added that the number of surgeries the health center is performing is not quite back to normal but close, at about 80-85 percent of the pre-COVID average.

The health center is providing antibody testing, too, which indicates whether someone has had COVID-19 in the past and may not have even known it. Getting an antibody test requires a provider order, and results come back in three to four days.