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‘I think we’re ready’: Carroll Hospital prepares for coronavirus as testing has begun in Carroll County

Carroll Hospital, along with other LifeBridge Health hospitals, has set up tents outside the emergency department to provide extra triage capacity in the event of a local outbreak of the coronavirus also known as COVID-19.
Carroll Hospital, along with other LifeBridge Health hospitals, has set up tents outside the emergency department to provide extra triage capacity in the event of a local outbreak of the coronavirus also known as COVID-19. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

Carroll Hospital has begun preparations for possible outbreak of the novel coronavirus, joining the other hospitals in the LifeBridge system in restricting visitors, activating emergency operations plans and setting up triage tents outside the emergency department.

This coronavirus causes a flu-like respiratory illness known as COVID-19, which as of Friday had resulted in 33 deaths in the United States out of more than 1,200 people who had tested positive for the virus, according to Johns Hopkins University.

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The first Carroll County case of the coronavirus was announced Friday afternoon.

“All the LifeBridge hospitals have activated their incident command teams, so we are actively managing the operation of the hospital as a disaster,” said Tom Jeffers, corporate director of emergency management for LifeBridge Health. “Not that we are in that position, but we want to make sure it’s already ramped up so if we should get a widespread outbreak in Westminster, we are ready to respond and take care of our community.”

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This decision was reached and the response underway well before Gov. Hogan on Thursday afternoon directed all hospitals to follow similar protocols.

In a visual sign of the ramping up, anyone driving by Carroll Hospital as of Wednesday might have seen white tents set up outside the emergency department. These are triage tents to be used in the event that large numbers of people need to be screened for the coronavirus, according to Jeffers.

“The intent of the tent is to cohort people we are testing and evaluating that are non-serious, don’t have any other medical complaint other than potential flu-like symptoms while we are testing them,” he said. “Obviously if we do have someone who is a potential COVID-19 patient that has other serious conditions, chest pain, shortness of breath, life-threatening kinds of conditions, they would not be in the tent, they would be inside in one of our negative pressure rooms.”

The tents were not active as of Thursday, but are intended to be seen as a sign of preparedness by the community, according to Stephanie Reid, Carroll Hospital’s chief nursing officer.

“We want to be ready if we need them, and we want the staff and our community to see that we are preparing if we need to use them. We actually did it as a reassurance,” she said. “We actually put our tent up last flu season. We didn’t have to use it, but we had it up and ready.”

The hospital has been conducting tests for the coronavirus, according to Selena Brewer, director of marketing and public relations for Carroll Hospital, though it was not immediately clear how many tests have been conducted and for how long the hospital has been testing.

The use of the tents and other preparations being made at Carroll Hospital are the result of lessons learned during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa of 2014-2016, when there were concerns of spread within the United States, according to Jeffers.

“We were sort of ahead of the game with the whole Ebola crisis in that we created an infectious disease pod in one of our units that would be used for that purpose, and had our staff trained,” he said. “It’s just a matter of refreshing our staff on the donning and doffing of the personal protection equipment.”

The hospital’s visitor policy was updated Wednesday to add the following policies:

  • All visitors will be required to check in at a visitor information desk.
  • Visitors younger than age 18 will be prohibited, unless if they are the parent of a child in the hospital.
  • Visits will be restricted to one adult visitor per patient.
  • Visitors may be screened for flu-like symptoms, including runny nose, fever and cough, and will not be allowed to visit if symptoms persist.
  • Anyone who has traveled internationally may not visit for 14 days after returning to the United States.

If and when there begin to be COVID-19 cases in Carroll County, Reid said, “I think we’re ready.”

Testing for the virus

According to Maggie Kunz, health planner with the Carroll County Health Department, it’s possible rumors might be swirling because commercial health laboratories such as LabCorp and Quest Diagnostics have begun offering COVID-19 testing. These services are different than testing done through the health department, which follows Centers For Disease and Prevention guidelines: people who were either hospitalized individuals with COVID-19 symptoms, people older than 65 or people with chronic health conditions or symptomatic people who had traveled to a COVID-19 risk area or been exposed to a known COVID-19 case within 14 days.

“The criteria to be tested at private labs is very different, just has to be approved by a physician, no need to follow CDC guidelines,” Kunz wrote in an email.

While the Carroll County Health Department will be informed of any positive COVID-19 tests, Kunz said, it was not clear as of Thursday just how many people have been tested.

The introduction of private testing has, however, been helpful to the public health response, according to Deputy Carroll County Health Officer Dr. Henry Taylor.

“Allowing commercial lab testing removed a huge bottleneck,” he wrote in an email. “By sending to physicians and commercial labs, we can focus on transitioning from tracing contacts and cases towards building the capacity of the community to care for COVID-19.”

It’s not clear just when such commercial COVID-19 testing became available in Carroll County, but an email auto-response from LabCorp’s media relations team, set due to the high volume of press inquiries, said the test first became available on March 5 and that LabCorp can now perform several thousand tests per day.

Specimens for the LabCorp tests are collected at doctor’s offices and sent to LabCorp, and take around three to four days to get results, according to the company’s webpage.

Anyone who thinks they or a family member might be showing coronavirus symptoms can call the health department’s COVID-19 hotline, which is available 8 am. through 5 p.m. Monday through Friday at 410-876-4848, or contact their doctor.

“For those people who do not meet the criteria to be tested through Maryland Department of Health, MDH recommends commercial testing first for influenza,” Kunz wrote in an email. “If that is negative, then a rapid viral panel and if that is negative for all pathogens, then test for COVID.”

Kunz noted the announcement of any positive COVID-10 results would likely be handled by the office of Gov. Larry Hogan.

Carroll County will cover co-pays for any county employees who need to be tested for the coronavirus, county administrator Roberta Windham said at the Board of County Commissioners meeting Thursday.

As of 5 p.m. Thursday, the governor’s office had confirmed 12 COVID-19 cases in Maryland, with one case from Baltimore County, one from Harford County, six cases from Montgomery County and four cases from Prince George’s County.

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Hogan announced Thursday that one of those Prince George’s County cases is the first example of community transmission of the virus in Maryland. The patient, the governor tweeted, “had no known exposure to coronavirus through travel or an infected individual.”

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Updates on the number of Maryland cases and other important information can be found on the health department’s COVID-19 webpage at cchd.maryland.gov/covid-19/.

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