Valley Health says expanded testing ‘deal changer’ for handling pandemic

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Coronavirus (COVID-19) in Page County, Virginia
Page Valley News will have continuing coverage of the Coronavirus' impact on Page County

By Randy Arrington

LURAY, Nov. 18 — At the Valley Health Corporation meeting held last week, Dr. Nick Restrepo, Vice President of Medical Affairs, told the regional health system’s board of directors that things are clearly changing with regard to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We are now, statewide and locally here, at a hospitalized rate very similar to our peak back in April-May…and similar if not slightly higher than our peak in August,” Dr. Restrepo said. “But the big differences now are several — one is the availability of testing. Our ability at Valley Health to test and rule out COVID-19 within the same day has been a deal changer.”

Beyond the three W’s (Wash your hands, Watch your distance and Wear a mask) and the anticipated release of a vaccine, health officials across the country agree that testing and contact tracing are the two key means to controlling the community spread of COVID-19.

“Valley Health has lead the way in the state,” Dr. Restrepo continued during his Nov. 10 remarks. “Every day a report comes out, [and] we are always in the top three or four for number of tests performed in the Commonwealth of Virginia. We have performed over 55,000 COVID-19 test since the beginning of the pandemic.”

Testing will be even more important in coming weeks as the Lord Fairfax Health District begins to set new daily records for new cases of the novel coronavirus. Four days after Dr. Restrepo gave his remarks to Valley Health’s board of directors, the local health district reported 80 new cases of COVID-19. That topped the old record of 73 reported on April 25 and again on May 28. Yesterday, the health district saw 113 new cases surface, marking the first time the daily count had exceeded the century mark. This morning, the district set another daily record, reporting 174 new cases of COVID-19.

“Early on in the pandemic, we established a community testing center in collaboration with our community docs,” Dr. Jeff Feit, Vice President of Population Health and Chief Medical Officer of Valley Health Medical Group, said last week. “I’m proud to say that over the last two months we’ve also added point-of-care antigen testing and now have the capability of doing up to 20,000 tests per month in the community for symptomatic patients.”

During the one-hour corporate meeting held through Zoom, the two MDs recounted Valley Health’s journey over the last 139 days since the first patient presenting symptoms arrived at one of their healthcare facilities.

“Back in March when the first person came, it was one patient… kind of got through the night well, then the flood started coming and by April we had a tremendous tsunami that we saw of individuals coming into the facilities requiring care for COVID-19,” Dr. Restrepo said. “It’s been a nonstop journey of learning, adapting and improving throughout the entire process.”

In the early days and weeks, Valley Health and other healthcare providers had to treat all patients who had COVID-19 symptoms as if they had the highly contagious disease. Those dubbed “patients (or persons) under investigation” slowed down services for other patients suffering from other illnesses as more and more coronavirus cases mounted.

“We worked really closely with our management engineering team to create a set of resources that we could work with as we saw outbreaks in our nursing homes and assisted living facilities,” Dr. Feit said. “The Virginia Department of Health has been incredible collaborators. We would not be where we are as a community without their guidance, their help, their work on contact tracing. Dr. [Colin] Green and his team have been remarkable in that capacity.”

Frontline workers with Valley Health were also quick to compliment the regional health system for its overall efforts to help with local outbreaks, including one in late April at Luray’s Skyview Nursing and Rehab Center. That outbreak generated dozens of coronavirus cases and caused at least 18 reported deaths at the facility.

“Valley Health was wonderful during the COVID outbreak,” said Angie Housden, NP, Family and Internal Medicine at Page Memorial Hospital. “They ran into a burning building…I like to say…without any weapons to use to fight the fire.”

Despite the high mortality rates that resulted from outbreaks in longterm care facilities throughout the state and the nation, Valley Health reported last week that, for healthcare providers, the regional system did better than most in Virginia for mortality rates among the patients they cared for with COVID-19.

“If you look at the patients who were hospitalized in the state of Virginia with COVID-19, the overall mortality rate was around 25 percent…in our hospital it was around 12 to 13 percent, and we should be very proud of that,” said Dr. T. Glen Bouder, Medical Director of the Critical Care Center at Winchester Medical Center.

“We all know someone who has been personally affected by COVID, and it affects everyone in different ways,” Dr. Bouder continued. “It just reminds us that we are all vulnerable.”

When Governor Ralph Northam shut down elective medical procedures in the spring and COVID-19 protocols cut down on visitations and routine appointments at medical facilities, many Valley Health employees found that the workload had shifted and many of them were temporarily not needed as much, or at all. However, Valley Health — the largest employer in the region with a workforce of about 6,000 and an annual payroll approaching $500 million — made sure that their employees were taken care of through programs like the Paycheck Protection Plan.

“I’ve been incredibly impressed by the board and its commitment to the community, in the sense that…When most health health care systems in this country… when this happened back in March… immediately moved to furlough employees, lay people off and cut costs…to hear these board members talk in those board meetings back in March, April and May when we were trying to discern what to do…It always came back to let’s take care of our employees, let’s take care of our community,” said newly appointed President and CEO Mark Nantz during the Nov. 10 meeting. 

“And I’m very, very proud to say that we didn’t furlough or layoff anyone, we kept everyone on payroll,” Nantz continued. “Folks who did not even work, because there was no work for them to do, got paid at least 70 percent and their benefits…and I think that just stands as a great commentary on how important this board feels this institution is to this community.”

Valley Health serves nearly 500,000 residents in Virginia and West Virginia. The regional healthcare provider spent more than $100 million with local businesses in the areas it serves, and provided more than $130 million in total charity and unreimbursed care in 2019.

After beginning construction in November 2017, a new Warren Memorial Hospital is “substantially complete” and is set to open in 2021. The $100 million investment continues capital improvements the health system has conducted at other regional facilities.

“We are in a very different place today [than at the beginning of the pandemic] in many ways, and I think it’s important for you to understand the contributions the health system has had for the well being of the region,” Dr. Restrepo told board members last week.

Valley Health continues to tailor testing, patient care and the expenditure of resources as they work to find better ways to fight the COVID-19 pandemic across the northern Shenandoah Valley and beyond.

“We have tried to lead the community through educational sessions that we do on a weekly basis as we start to now pivot toward vaccine preparedness and a distribution strategy for when the vaccine does come,” Dr. Feit said as he ended last week’s presentation. “As we move through this last phase, please remember the three W’s… wash your hands, watch your distance and please wear a mask. 

“Try to keep us all safe while we try to get through the end of this.”

For more information about Valley Health and its fight against COVID-19, click HERE.

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