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Newest surge, workforce and testing shortage put Pardee under 'perfect storm' of stress, CEO says

Jay Kirby Jay Kirby

It is rare that I personally reach out to members of our community to share a direct message from Pardee. Usually, it would be to share some good news about an award or a new service that we’ve added to our system. Unfortunately, that is not the case today.

I’m writing to speak clearly and openly about the strain that our hospital is currently under. As we approach our second full year of battling this pandemic and navigating what feels like a never-ending cycle of surges, it’s important to understand the impact of this current surge and our ability to provide care to those who need it most.

In the past weekend alone, we have seen a 71 percent increase in patients hospitalized for Covid. As of Monday, Jan. 10, we were caring for 36 COVID-positive patients, with seven of those requiring care in our ICU and four on a ventilator. We anticipate this number will continue to climb until we get through this current wave of community transmission and the highly contagious Omicron variant. We are also seeing high numbers of influenza, RSV and other illnesses that compound our current situation and push our census much higher than normal. We do not expect the peak of omicron to arrive until a few more weeks.

As other area hospitals go on diversion, we continue to accept their patients and are more than happy to do so. But with each additional patient, we experience added strain on our system. To manage the flow and needs of this increase in critical care for our patients, Pardee has had to shift the overflow of critical, non-COVID patients from our ICU to our Post Anesthesia Care Unit, cared for by nurses skilled in the care of ICU patients. We may have to shift patients even more in order to adequately care for patients who require isolation. In addition, we have had to temporarily pause all elective inpatient and outpatient surgeries, as well as all elective cardiac procedures. We will continue to meet all emergent and critical surgery needs.

At the time of this writing, we have just over 40 of our team members out on quarantine, with that number fluctuating daily. As a result of team member illnesses, both COVID and non-COVID related, we have had to temporarily close two of our urgent care locations — eliminating two options for people seeking a test or care for their non-emergent needs.

As you have likely experienced, PCR COVID tests are in short supply. People want to find out if their sniffles, sore throat and body aches are COVID — and rightly so. Unfortunately, with fewer options available in our community — over the counter, pharmacy, and our urgent care locations —people begin to show up in our Emergency Department, which is the least desirable option for an affordable or efficient test.

Add to that our own limited supply of PCR tests and our desire to reserve them for seriously ill patients already hospitalized and you have a perfect storm of frustration. ER wait times will continue to increase. To address this issue, we will reallocate primary care providers and staff to all urgent care locations to reopen all sites and relieve pressure on our ER.

Bottom line, this increase in patient census, levels of critical care needed and associated staffing issues have impacted care across our organization. What does that mean for our community? It means we are caring for more patients — patients that hospitals across the country weren’t designed to care for — with less staff and fewer resources.

Make no mistake, we are strong and we will weather this storm, but not without some collateral damage. What can you do? Please, if you haven’t already, get vaccinated or boosted and wear a mask. Daily percentages fluctuate, but on average, 90 percent of the COVID-positive patients in our care are unvaccinated. And unfortunately, the unvaccinated patients are the ones requiring the highest level of care.

Data shows that vaccinated people who also received a booster dose have stronger protection against the Omicron variant. Yes, you may still contract COVID, but the likelihood of your ending up in our Emergency Department or our ICU requiring care and battling for your life is far less than if you were unvaccinated. And when you are able to care for COVID at home, rather than in the hospital, you’re freeing up a bed for your neighbor who may have a heart attack or stroke, or a loved one who may be in a serious accident.

These are truly trying times. I am honored to work with the most dedicated and caring healthcare professionals I’ve ever encountered. They are doing the best they can, and they are tired. Please pray for their safety and stamina and support and thank them when you see them.

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James "Jay" Kirby has served as the president and CEO of Pardee UNC Health Care since 2011, bringing more than 30 years of healthcare management experience to oversee the 222-bed acute care hospital, a comprehensive cancer center, four urgent care locations, six orthopedics clinics, and a physician practice network comprised of 341 physicians. Under his leadership, Pardee has expanded its services to include Board-certified interventional cardiologists and vascular surgeons, and only the second STEMI-certified emergency department in all of western North Carolina. Kirby also led Pardee to add pulmonology, neurology, oncology, thoracic surgery, infectious disease, and the region’s second largest orthopedic group to better serve the people of western North Carolina.