Covenant Health leaders aim to calm anxieties as COVID-19 spike lies ahead


KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – As the number of COVID-19 cases grow in East Tennessee, quesions surrounding hospital preparedness are also growing.

Wednesday, we heard from a critical care nurse who walked off the job at Parkwest Medical Center. She told us she felt her health was at risk, as she said she was denied a N95 protective mask when treating asymptomatic patients.

She also acknowledged this practice is in line with guidelines set by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Parkwest Medical Center President and Chief Administrative Officer Neil Heatherly said the hospital is adequately supplied with enough personal protective equipment for its current volume.

“We are providing our colleagues with the equipment that they need to provide safe care for our patients today, but we’re also doing so with a careful and important eye to conserving these very scarce resources that we likely will need in the coming days and weeks,” Heatherly said

Heatherly also said the hospital is actively working to get more equipment, including masks, face shields, N95 respirators, gowns and gloves.

His overall message Thursday was this: Parkwest Medical Center has already treated multiple COVID-19 patients and is prepared to tackle the anticipated uptick in the weeks ahead. Parkwest, a member of the Covenant Health system, has multiple surge plans, including in emergency departments, critical care, ventilator usage, and staffing.

If the hospital were to experience staffing shortages during an uptick in COVID-19 patients, he explained, under the hospital’s extraordinary catastrophic surge plan, they can recall former health care workers.

Tiffany Lewallen, a registered nurse at Parkwest, said she wanted to speak to these concerns Thursday, given the amount of anxiety in the community.

“They care so much about us. I don’t want them to have any more things to worry about. We are taken care of and we are taking care of you, and that is what we love to do,” Lewallen said.

She explained the use of masks have always depended on the patient’s condition.

“I’ve been on the front lines of this since day one. I have never once feared that I was going to contract coronavirus from this hospital. I have never once feared that I was going to take it to my family or my community because I’ve had all the proper equipment every single time,” she said.

Lewallen even said she’s never seen anyone at the hospital wear inefficient PPE. In fact, she said the hospital goes beyond that, by providing staff on-site training to ensure medical professionals are wearing the gear correctly, adding “I know that we are going to be taken care of so that we can take care of our patients.”

Dr. Mark Browne, senior vice president and chief medical officer for Covenant Health, said Thursday, “From the front line folks, who are really in this battle every day, to the folks behind the scenes, whether it’s out pharmacists, our dietary workers, our administrative folks, it’s been a challenge for all of us.

“We’ve all had to learn to do things somewhat differently. But we’re doing well, and we’re ready.”

Browne oversees nine acute care hospitals. Their biggest adjustment, he explained, is increased communication, at the corporate level daily and at individual hospitals, in between each shift.

Browne believes when the peak gets here, through their preparation, and partnerships with other health systems, their hospitals will meet the demand.

He also confirmed they’ve implemented strategies for ensuring enough PPE is available in the weeks ahead. N95 masks, Browne explained, are being sanitized with the same equipment used to sanitize surgical tools.

While they’re as good as new, he said they haven’t had to dip into their sanitized supply.

“We’re doing everything we can and feel confident that we have what we need for today, but are always preparing for the future,” Browne said.

Browne also expressed confidence in their bed capacity and ventilator supply. He said there are plans for increasing capacity, if needed.

While Heatherly has an optimistic tone, when discussing the morale among staff and the teamwork going on inside the hospital, he also acknowledged the job comes with its own anxieties. He said his team is working to provide them with support and resources, such as EAP support.

“This is our time at Parkwest and Covenant Health to demonstrate our pledge of excellence to our patients, our broader community, and to each other, to our team, this team of heroes inside our hospital. This is our time to do that at a time the community needs us most. I’ve never been more proud of more grateful to be a part of Parkwest and Covenant Health.”

Neil Heatherly
Parkwest Medical Center President and Chief Administrative Officer

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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