CATE 1.jpg

Dr. Joseph Walden takes a nasal swab of Sam Wickersham in CATE, a mobile response unit as it sits in the parking lot of the YMCA on Harrisburg Pike where they were testing people for COVID-19 in this file photo from Friday, Aug. 28, 2020. 

As COVID-19 cases in Lancaster County and across the state continue to soar, health officials worry the fall surge could overwhelm their capacity to respond to the community’s needs.

Dr. Michael Ripchinski, chief clinical officer at Penn Medicine Lancaster General Health, said he’s lost sleep worrying a wave of infections could crush his front-line workers.

“If we have prolonged periods of caring for patients with COVID-19 it will take a toll on our staff,” Ripchinski said. “I worry about being able to sustain that for months.”

To ensure sufficient staffing to care for patients, Ripchinski said the hospital has offered premium pay, overtime and extra shifts to incentivize the workforce.

County leaders compared the recent surge in COVID cases to what Pennsylvania experienced in the spring, even as the state set a single-day record for cases Thursday with more than 5,400.

Although Ripchinski said worst-case scenarios keep him up at night, county health adviser Edwin Hurston said he doesn’t share such concerns.

“I don’t think that there are any new public health discoveries or epiphanies that are going to help us,” said Hurston, hired in April to spearhead the county’s response to the pandemic.

Hurston, who like county Commissioner Josh Parsons was short on details about the county’s strategy for dealing with a run-up in hospitalizations, instead insisted that case counts was a poor metric.


Hospitalizations are up

Health officials across the country have noted for months that hospitalizations and deaths follow a proliferation of cases, and the rise in cases is already showing up in the county’s hospitals.

Take WellSpan Health, which operates eight hospitals, including WellSpan Ephrata Community in Ephrata Borough. During the summer, the health system’s hospitals averaged 60 COVID patients a day. WellSpan York Hospital alone on Thursday had 69 COVID patients.

And that’s just one health system.

At one point in September, the number of COVID patients at Lancaster General and WellSpan Ephrata Community hospitals plunged into single digits.

During a press conference Wednesday, Dr. Anthony Aquilina, WellSpan’s executive vice president and chief physician executive, said the concern is that even as the numbers rapidly worsen, “our counties may not yet be peaking from this most recent wave.”


Share, transfer, mobilize

None of the health systems serving Lancaster County residents anticipate re-implementing the measures taken during the spring lockdown.

“We have no plans to postpone essential procedures as this unintentionally caused further harm in the past with patients who needed care not receiving it,” Dr. John Goldman, interim chief medical officer at UPMC Pinnacle, said in an email to LancasterOnline.

Nor does Goldman, or the other health officials with whom LancasterOnline spoke, expect to further limit visitations.

Across the UPMC system, which serves communities in Pennsylvania, western Maryland and New York, COVID patients occupy roughly 7% of its hospital beds, Goldman said. The health system operates more than 30 hospitals with 8,400 licensed beds, according to its website.

Officials with WellSpan, UPMC and Penn Medicine all said they intend to leverage their health systems to deploy personal protective equipment, medical supplies, staff and other supplies to community hotspots, as needed.

“Should the need arise, we can share resources, transfer patients or mobilize staff between facilities,” Goldman said.

Unlike the red, yellow and green phases of reopening Gov. Tom Wolf created over the summer that drew the ire of county commissioners, health officials and lawmakers alike eschewed identifying specific triggers for implementing mitigation strategies.

Parsons declined to deliberate on the worst-case scenario the county could face or how nimble plans might need to be to battle the current surge in coronavirus cases.

“Just like we did in the spring, if our hospital systems need additional support we will work with (the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency), (the Federal Emergency Management Agency), and our federal and state representatives to get what is necessary,” Parsons said in an email.

He did disclose — without elaborating — that the county has a plan to assist in distributing a vaccine, once one becomes available.