As virus hospitalization numbers fluctuate in Tompkins County, Cayuga Medical Center clinicians are grappling with how to treat COVID-19 patients without jeopardizing the safety of staff and other patients.
Beyond Ithaca, rising case numbers throughout the country have complicated routine medical procedures, causing some Ithacans to think twice about going to the hospital. However, three recent CMC patients who spoke with The Sun described feeling safe going for treatment at CMC because of the hospital’s COVID-19 safety policies, including screening procedures and personal protective equipment for staff.
Celia Morgan, a Groton, New York, resident, was treated for ulcers at CMC last week. Morgan said she worried about going to the hospital as case numbers were rising, but safety procedures eased her anxieties about the virus.
“I expected it to be scary. I expected to be terrified,” Morgan said. “It just was not that way. I felt like everyone had a really good grasp on what they were doing, and they were looking out for each other and for me.”
According to Dr. Douglas MacQueen, a Cayuga Health infectious disease specialist, patients arriving at Cayuga Medical Center, urgent care and specialty clinics have their temperature taken and are screened for symptoms and recent travel.
Margaret Neher, an Ithaca resident, gets monthly antibody infusion treatments at CMC to treat an immune deficiency disorder. While Neher is at a higher risk of complications if she gets COVID-19, she said maintaining her monthly treatments at the medical center is worth the risk.
“I can’t say I’m not at all nervous. I think they do a good job of keeping things safe,” Neher said. “Every so often I’ll see a patient with a mask under their nose or something like that and it’s annoying, but I feel pretty safe there. I’m just aware that there’s no such thing as 100 percent safe.”
Some of the clinicians who treat COVID-19 patients also treat patients who have not tested positive for the virus, according to MacQueen. To reduce the risk of exposing patients, clinicians change personal protective equipment in between patients, regularly wash their hands and sterilize reusable equipment.
According to Morgan, who, due to her many years of recurring ulcers, has been to Cayuga Medical Center many times in the past, the staff PPE policy had an unexpected silver lining. Because clinicians who visited her room stayed until they completed all their tasks to avoid wasting PPE, Morgan said she was able to get more time than usual with hospital staff.
“I felt like, because they weren’t running around in and out, they were able to get a clearer picture of everything I would say. It felt like they took time to really pay attention,” Morgan said. “It was extraordinary.”
According to MacQueen, CMC has all the PPE it needs for its staff, including gowns, masks, gloves, eyewear, powered air-purifying respirators and N-95 respirators. Patients are also given surgical masks when they enter.
On Oct. 19, CMC suspended visitors from the hospital when local COVID-19 case numbers began to rise, according to MacQueen. No visitors can enter the hospital during a patient’s stay, except when medically necessary or when family members or legal representatives need to be present for end of life care.
Sue Perlgut, an Ithaca resident, was one of these exceptions — she was accompanied by her husband to get an MRI, because she needed to take medications to cope with the scanning process.
While keeping non-COVID-19 patients safe from infection, CMC clinicians also treat some patients for COVID-19 symptoms. According to MacQueen, clinians decide whether to admit COVID-19 patients to the medical center based on national guidelines that include respiratory status, vital signs, oxygen needs, blood pressure and heart rate. COVID-19 patients are treated in negative pressure isolation rooms, keeping the air in these rooms from reaching the rest of the facility and instead funneling it outside after filtering.
MacQueen urges people not to risk long-term health consequences of avoiding addressing health problems through telehealth services or an in-person visit.
“We encourage everyone to not delay healthcare with concerns for COVID-19,” MacQueen wrote. “We have a number of safeguards in place to help ensure that any patient who enters a Cayuga Health facility is as safe as possible.”