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After years of planning, a West Michigan hospital puts its pandemic response to the test

The receiving area of Butterworth Hospital in Grand Rapids.
Spectrum Health
Spectrum Health has been working on a pandemic preparedness plan for over a decade. The COVID-19 outbreak will put those measures to the test.

In 2008, Spectrum Health hospital system in Grand Rapids received a pandemic preparedness grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). For more than a decade, they’ve been developing a plan on how to respond to a global outbreak of infectious disease. Now, they’re putting that plan into action.

Mark VanDyke is manager of business assurance for Spectrum Health. He oversees emergency preparedness for the hospital, covering everything from staff readiness, to medical supply lines, to business functions like payroll.

VanDyke said the hospital set up a task force to monitor the spread of the novel coronavirus in early January. 

"We quickly realized that the epidemiology reports that were coming out of Wuhan, China were different. This was spreading faster and more efficiently than other things that we had seen." 

When the virus reached Seattle, VanDyke said the task force started to plan ahead to ensure the hospital system was equipped to deal with a potential surge in COVID-19 patients.

There are several stages to preparing for a pandemic, according to VanDyke. The first is to make sure that staff are available and healthy. Spectrum limited travel and large events like conferences for its healthcare workers. The second step is making sure the hospital has enough beds for critically-ill patients. They did that by eliminating elective surgeries and other hospital visits that could be put off until later in the year. 

“What we’re doing is reducing the number of people in our facility, we’re reducing the number of beds that are being taken by elective procedures, and so we’re freeing up that staff and that space to take on a patient that may be impacted by the pandemic.”

The idea is that when a surge of patients does arrive, Spectrum will be filling up empty beds rather than scrambling to create more capacity. Aside from space, another critical need during a pandemic is personal protective equipment—or PPE. Across the country, hospitals are running low on surgical masks, N95 respirators, and other PPE. Some health systems have even turned to making their own.

To deal with the shortage of PPE, VanDyke said Spectrum has worked with staff to make sure they are using the appropriate level of protection to preserve the supplies needed for treating patients with COVID-19. VanDyke said the hospital also has what’s known as a “hot zone boss.” That’s a staff member who makes sure that PPE is being used safely.

“We have a staff member who is specifically trained in how to put on and take off PPE, which can be the most dangerous spot for a healthcare worker,” VanDyke explained. “They watch our staff who are exiting rooms to ensure that the gloves and masks are taken off properly to limit the exposure to infectious diseases.”

While West Michigan is not yet seeing the numbers of cases that the east side of the state is, VanDkye said he wants people in West Michigan to know that Spectrum is ready for what is likely an inevitable surge of coronavirus cases. 

“We’re ready to handle this in West Michigan. We have discussed this, we’ve planned it, we’ve practiced it.”

VanDyke said that the hospital has the ability to test up to 700 people per day at their own lab. They also have an agreement with Grand Valley State University to turn the school's Cook-DeVos Center for Health Sciences into makeshift hospital space if needed. VanDyke said the center could provide space for up to 250 additional beds. Still, he added, it will require the broader community to do their part to ensure that the hospital can meet the challenge of the coronavirus pandemic. They can do that by staying home and staying healthy. 

This article was written by Stateside production assistant Olive Scott. 

Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
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