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Ask Us: What are plans if hospitals reach COVID-19 capacity?

Editor’s note: Ask Us is a weekly feature published online Mondays and in print on Tuesdays. We’ll seek to answer your questions about items or trends in Rowan County. Have a question? Email it to askus@salisburypost.com.

If coronavirus causes capacity concerns at local hospitals, next steps would be multi-faceted and involve coordination between hospital as well as among local, health care and state officials.

A reader asked what type of plans are in place in the event that local hospitals reach capacity due to COVID-19 cases. The answer is complicated, says TJ Brown, Rowan County Emergency Management Division Chief and a spokesman for county government’s coronavirus response efforts.

The first step, Brown said, would involve surge plans at individual hospitals, including Novant Health Rowan Medical Center and the W.G. “Bill” Hefner Medical Center.

The two facilities have a combined 106 beds dedicated to COVID-19 patients, with 51 being used as of last week. But Brown said one or both facilities could easily designate more beds for COVID-19 patients.

Rowan Medical Center is licensed for about 268 total beds, according to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services’ Division of Health Service Regulation. That number includes 203 general, 10 rehab, 40 psych and 15 substance abuse beds. Additionally, there are several other beds licensed for the hospital’s operating rooms.

Novant Health in a statement said it has extensive surge plans in place and is ready to respond as needs arise.

“At the onset of the pandemic, North Carolina lifted a restriction that allows us to temporarily add and relocate beds into any space that meets federal safety requirements,” a spokesperson for the company said. “At present, Novant Health has more than 2,400 licensed beds in North Carolina. With investments and the tireless efforts of our teams, we are able to increase our bed capacity by 60% in preparation for a potential surge.”

Besides simply changing the allocation of beds or adding more, Brown said hospitals could transfer patients to another nearby facility in the event of a spike in hospitalizations.

The W.G. “Bill” Hefner VA Medical Center has a total of 484 beds, according to the Veterans Affairs Administration, but a majority of those are nursing home beds. The VA’s total includes 159 hospital beds. The facility serves those enrolled in the VA health care system in the Piedmont region, but in a statement the facility said it is ready to help private facilities, too.

“The Salisbury VA stands ready to surge capabilities into civilian health care systems in the event those systems encounter capacity issues, but at this time they are not encountering such issues,” said a spokesperson for the Salisbury VA. “Requests for such support would flow through the Department of Health and Human Services, as part of FEMA’s National Response Coordination Center.”

At the point where it’s no longer possible to transfer COVID-19 patients between hospitals, Brown said state officials would be involved in determining what comes next.

“They would start pulling triggers to do whatever needs to be done to stabilize the situation,” he said. “At that point, you’re thinking statewide and from a regional standpoint.”

A spokesperson for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services was not able to respond to a request by deadline Friday.

At one point, local leaders planned to make the J.F. Hurley Family YMCA the site of of a medical shelter as an “extreme backup.” Former Emergency Services Chief Chris Soliz in April described that possibility as unlikely. Brown on Thursday said the same, noting that hospitals and health care systems have developed their own emergency plans.

When will McCoy Road reopen?

A reader also asked about the closure of McCoy Road in Salisbury’s Milford Hills area, including what damage caused the closure and when people should expect it to reopen.

The city of Salisbury’s Public Works Department said McCoy Road was closed on Sept. 1 after a large flooding event and a determination by engineering staff that the embankment had eroded to the point that travel was no longer safe. The road was closed until a culvert, which allows water to flow under the road, could be replaced.

The estimate to begin construction is Jan. 1. Construction could end March 4, the city’s Public Works Department said. But that schedule is dependent on acquiring easements for construction.

Issues with the culvert began in the fall of 2017, when city staff noted embankment erosion because of an undersized pipe. The city made repairs and put out a request for qualifications for engineering design services in January 2018. The culvert’s repair was then scheduled for the current fiscal year — 2020-2021.

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