By ELIZABETH COOPER • Special to www.AllOTSEGO.com
There is still only one positive case of the COVID-19 virus in Otsego County.
But don’t let your guard down, because that number doesn’t tell the whole story.
With confirmed cases skyrocketing above 25,000 in the state and testing supplies dwindling, there may be many here who have the virus but remain unidentified.
In Otsego County alone, there are 35 people on quarantine – either awaiting test results or who have had close contact with someone who has a confirmed case – according to county Health Department figures. And that doesn’t include the many others Bassett Healthcare Network practitioners may have recommended self-quarantine to patients with symptoms.
People are jittery.
Bassett Healthcare Network’s coronavirus hotline – 607-547-5555 – fielded 3,300 in its first 10 days of operation. Though the vast majority were deemed not to be at risk, health practitioners are urging everyone to practice “social distancing.”
At Bassett Healthcare Network, the top priority is to protect the communities it serves. That doesn’t just mean treating those believed to have the illness, it means preventing others from getting sick as well.
An elaborate triage system – a strategic assessment of relative risk — has been created to do just that, using phone or video conferencing as much as possible to avoid contagion.
It is a scary time, but doctors, nurses and other staff stand ready to do their part, one Bassett doctor said.
“This pandemic reminds me of why I went to medical school, and of why we do what we do,” said Dr. Scott Cohen in an interview from the Network’s Norwich office. “We have a common goal. We want to take care of our community, our patients, our neighbors and ourselves.”
►FAMILY ON PHONE “WAS SCARED”
With testing supplies limited and much still unknown about how COVID-19, also known as novel coronavirus, progresses, area doctors and nurses are trying to do their best, but it isn’t easy.
Symptoms can resemble those of other less serious illnesses, and even known COVID-19 cases can have very different trajectories, Cohen said.
“How do we reassure people when we don’t know what the outcome is going to be?” he said.
In one of Cohen’s cases, he spoke with a teenager who was getting short of breath, had a significant cough and a high fever. He spoke with her the next day and she was worse.
“The family was scared,” he said.
She was brought in for an evaluation and he is keeping in contact with them, but she was not tested. “We were able to follow them, to keep them feeling like they were being cared for, because they were,” he said.
But the inability to test was frustrating.
“We have to use our judgment,” he said. “I have to say, ‘Listen, you have symptoms that could be (the virus). I have to quarantine you until you meet the criteria to be taken off quarantine.’ It’s very frustrating for patients and for practitioners, but we don’t have a choice.”
►GIRDING FOR DOWNSTATE INFLUX
On Friday, March 20, Governor Cuomo called upon Upstate hospitals to prepare additional space for patients from harder hit downstate areas. On Monday, there were more than 12,000 cases in New York City and more in surrounding downstate counties.
“It could be a person comes in from New York City, but we have a hospital bed in Albany, and if that’s what it gets to that’s what it gets to. If we have a hospital bed with a ventilator anywhere in the state I would be happy.”
Bassett has been contacted by the state and stands ready for an influx of patients, whether they are local or from other parts of the state, Hospital spokeswoman Karen Huxtable Hooker said.
“We will certainly prioritize the care of people coming to us from throughout the Bassett Healthcare Network,” she said Saturday. “That is our responsibility.”
The governor has asked hospitals to find ways of accommodating more patient beds wherever possible. Huxtable Hooker said that Bassett has been able to add 120 more beds, bringing its total capacity to over 300 beds.
“The work continues to identify additional spaces for conversion,” she said.
►VIDEO SYSTEM DIAGNOSES FROM AFAR
Cohen has been overseeing the implementation of the Network’s new video conferencing system, and it’s invaluable, he said.
“What we ramped up dramatically over the past two weeks was the ability to see patients at home,” Cohen said. The Network had been using the technology for about a year so patients could consult with specialists remotely.
In one instance, parents were worried about the “weird symptoms” of their 9-year-old asthmatic son.
“I was able to hear his cough and see him,” Cohen said. “His color was good and I could tell he wasn’t in respiratory distress.” The child was treated remotely, without danger of being exposed to the virus in the doctor’s office.
A young man with a newborn baby also had an appointment related to another illness, but because of the video chat system he didn’t have to come in.
“He was so thankful that he didn’t have to leave the house and potentially expose himself to an illness and worry about bringing it back to his baby,” Cohen said. “That was absolutely huge.”
And a woman with COPD was able to ask questions about contact with a nephew with a runny nose, cough and fever.
“We were able to talk her through that,” he said.
►HOTLINE PROCESSES 3,300 SO FAR
The vast majority of those who call the hotline have only a common cold or perhaps the flu. Though virus symptoms can sometimes overlap, medical practitioners are often able to make a determination by asking simple questions.
Of the 3,300 who had called as of Monday, 2,900 were referred to an RN for further evaluation by phone. About 850 were then referred to a practitioner for more thorough analyses, though still by phone.
Of those, 450 were given appointments at the special COVID-19 examination sites the Network has set up.
There, they can have their upper respiratory symptoms better diagnosed and treatment can be prescribed.
Because of the lack of testing supplies, there may be patients who have the virus, but cannot be definitively identified as such.
Numbers were not immediately available for how many patients Bassett had tested at locations across its eight-county network. Otsego County has tested just over 100 people and of those, 75 have been negative and 27 tests are still awaiting results, county Public Health Director Heidi Bond said.