Officials from Penn Highlands Huntingdon said in a conference call Thursday they are starting to see patient volumes increase once again, allowing them to bring back some of the 600 employees they furloughed as a result of stopping elective procedures due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We’re about to 75% of pre-pandemic volumes,” said Mark Norman, chief operating officer. “We are bringing back employees as needed, and we will continue to do so as we see more increases.”

As Penn Highlands has started to perform elective procedures once again, they want people to be assured they have enough personal protective equipment for staff.

“We want people to know we’re open and ready to accept patients, especially in our emergency rooms,” said Norman. “We want to help people by keeping them educated and informed.”

Norman discussed how they’re starting a campaign noting that, “We’re here. Here for You.” which shows how they are helping to provide the safest care possible throughout the entire health system.

Shaun Sheehan, head of the Penn Highlands COVID-19 Task Force, discussed how they are evolving the health system to go back to regular health care in the pandemic.

“Our dedicated COVID-19 unit (in DuBois) has been transitioned back to its previous operation, but it could be opened again relatively easily,” said Sheehan. “Our volume of COVID-19 patient rollouts remains low, including at Penn Highlands Huntingdon.”

Additionally, they are still operating with most of their previous restrictions on visitors in place, but Sheehan noted that one person can go with a patient for a procedure as a support person.

“Note that this is a support person, and they are not considered a visitor,” said Sheehan. “We haven’t changed our visitor policies. The one area that would be excluded would be our infusion centers where patients are getting chemotherapy due to the high risk associated with the diseases being treated there.”

Like patients who enter the facility, the support person would have to go through a screening process and temperature checks, and they would receive a pass for the duration of their time in the facility.

“Also, across our health system, we have the required social distancing in all of our waiting areas, and we’re also disinfecting public spaces frequently with industrial products,” said Sheehan.

Norman added that patients have also been allowed support people for end-of-life situations during the course of the restrictions due to the pandemic.

Sheehan noted that as of Wednesday, there had been 1,872 tests performed in total, with 1,700 completed, and there have been 82 positives, with most of them at Penn Highlands Huntingdon.

“It usually takes 1-4 days for tests to be returned, but sometimes it’s up to six,” said Sheehan. “We send our swabs to Quest Diagnostics in Pittsburgh, and with our current supply of testing, we should be able to test most of the public, with priority going to healthcare workers, frontline workers, and public safety individuals as well as any individuals who have symptoms.”

Symptoms of COVID-19, as described by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) include cough, shortness of breath, loss of taste and smell, diarrhea, sore throat and a fever of 103 degrees or higher.

When asked if antibody testing is available at any Penn Highlands facilities, Sheehan noted they are able to send one type of antibody test to Quest Diagnostics in Pittsburgh, but pointed out that there’s not enough evidence at this time to show if antibodies means any kind of immunity to COVID-19.

“Having antibodies doesn’t mean individuals can’t be infected or reinfected,” said Sheehan. “That data doesn’t exist yet. We hope it’s the case, but there’s no clear evidence that it is the case.”

He also stressed the best methods of preventing the spread known at this time, including physical distancing, good hand hygiene and wearing masks in public places where lots of people congregate.

“This is how our society can co-exist with this virus,” said Sheehan.

Sheehan also touted state Department of Corrections staff for the outbreak at SCI Huntingdon for their communication with Penn Highlands Huntingdon and officials throughout the health system.

“It’s an unfortunate situation within the correctional facility,” said Sheehan. “But, the DOC has been doing a fantastic job with keeping in touch with us. We’re working cooperatively with them. They’re also treating and isolating COVID-19 patients at their expanded infirmary. We’ve seen very few inmates presenting to the emergency department. Most can be treated (at SCI Huntingdon). Only a few have required admission, and some have required a higher level of care to a tertiary facility.”

Kylie can be reached at khawn@huntingdondailynews.com.

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