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Local hospitals stressed by rising coronavirus cases, medical experts say

Jim Gebhart, regional president of Mercy Hospital Oklahoma
Jim Gebhart, regional president of Mercy Hospital Oklahoma

Hospitals and health care workers are under increasing stress as coronavirus cases rise in Oklahoma, underscoring the need for people to wear masks and take other precautions to slow the spread, local medical experts said during a panel discussion on Friday.

Health care providers are delivering babies, performing surgeries and treating a range of conditions at clinics and emergency rooms, while dealing with what one doctor called an “onslaught” of COVID-19 cases.

On a virtual roundtable organized by U.S. Rep. Kendra Horn, D-Oklahoma City, physicians and administrators also warned of the toll being taken on workers’ mental health.

“The constancy of preparedness and concern of coming to work in this environment takes a tremendous toll,” said Chuck Spicer, president and CEO of OU Medicine.

“And I think we will not begin to see the impact of that maybe for another several weeks because it’s the compounding effect on the mental health of our workforce.”

Hospitalizations have soared in recent weeks to the highest levels of the pandemic and have settled above 600 statewide.

Jim R. Gebhart, Jr., regional president of Mercy Hospital, Oklahoma, said Mercy has treated tens of thousands of patients since March who don’t have COVID-19 and has had to adjust operations to accommodate both types of patients.

“What we’ve seen at Mercy is that it makes it more complicated, it makes it more risky but it also makes it more expensive,” Gebhart said.

“And we’ve seen our average cost for our labor … go up by about $2 an hour since the start of covid. That equates to — over a one year time period — about $10 million in additional health care costs just for this one single hospital.”

Gebhart said “these masking strategies and other strategies that we do” will save money.

Kersey Winfree, MD, chief medical officer at SSM Health St. Anthony, said balancing regular medical operations along with the new surge in COVID-19 patients has been a challenge and a “real drain on the staff.”

When health care workers test positive, he said, they have to go home for two weeks and “that actually exacerbates the toll it takes on our workforce.”

Winfree said “community efforts to stem this infection are extremely important. All the things that we know work, all the things that we know will slow this thing down need to be followed.

“Otherwise it’s going to be double jeopardy for health care systems in terms of the challenges of taking care of these patients.”

Timothy Pehrson, president and CEO of Integris Health System, Oklahoma, said it has been a challenge to keep fresh staff as the demands rise and that there were “not enough nurses in our community to meet the needs.”

“We can’t go out and get them anywhere else because the whole world is trying to pull them in,” Pehrson said.

Dr. Dale W. Bratzler, chief covid officer at the University of Oklahoma, said Oklahoma was catching up to Texas in terms of cases per 100,000 residents. Some parts of Texas have struggled recently with overcrowded hospitals.

Bratzler said wearing a mask “does not affect your oxygen levels or your carbon dioxide levels” and that, until a vaccine is available, is among the steps necessary to reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

He said he has seen estimates of the effectiveness of masks ranging from 30% to 85%.

“I typically now highlight that somewhere in the 50 to 75% effectiveness of preventing person-to-person transmission,” Bratzler said.

Related Photos
<strong>Chuck Spicer, President & CEO, OU Medicine</strong>

Chuck Spicer, President & CEO, OU Medicine

<figure><img src="//" alt="Photo - Chuck Spicer, President &amp; CEO, OU Medicine " title=" Chuck Spicer, President &amp; CEO, OU Medicine "><figcaption> Chuck Spicer, President &amp; CEO, OU Medicine </figcaption></figure><figure><img src="//" alt="Photo - Jim Gebhart, regional president of Mercy Hospital Oklahoma " title=" Jim Gebhart, regional president of Mercy Hospital Oklahoma "><figcaption> Jim Gebhart, regional president of Mercy Hospital Oklahoma </figcaption></figure>
Chris Casteel

Chris Casteel began working for The Oklahoman's Norman bureau in 1982 while a student at the University of Oklahoma. Casteel covered the police beat, federal courts and the state Legislature in Oklahoma City. From 1990 through 2016, he was the... Read more ›