Officials at the top of the largest healthcare system working to curb the spread of COVID-19 in central Maine — and tend to the sick — have a plea to everyone:

Spend the upcoming holidays only in the presence of those with whom you live. Wear a mask. Social distance. Wash your hands frequently. And most of all, practice patience.

Chuck Hays, MaineGeneral chief executive officer. Courtesy photo

“Obviously, this has been a long haul, and we’re not even through it,” Chuck Hays, chief executive officer of MaineGeneral Health, said Wednesday of the pandemic. “And it’s probably going to be a much longer haul.”

Hays and Steve Diaz, MaineGeneral’s chief medical officer, reflected on the pandemic situation to date. As of Wednesday, the Alfond Center for Health hospital in Augusta had had 54 inpatients with COVID-19 and 12 deaths, with the first death reported at the end of March. Thirty-one patients have been discharged or moved to other levels of care, according to Diaz.

“We’re doing very well at taking care of patients with COVID without getting sick ourselves,” Diaz said.

The hospital as of Wednesday had 12 COVID patients.

The Portland Press Herald reported Friday that MaineGeneral had broken its record for confirmed COVID-19 inpatients for the third week running with an average of 12.1 treated each day for the week ending Thursday, up from 9.9 the previous week. During the summer months, there were many weeks when the Augusta hospital had no COVID-19 inpatients at all.

MaineGeneral provides a broad spectrum of services to patients living in 88 communities throughout the Kennebec Valley region. The health care system has 31 separate buildings, some with multiple tenants, such as at the Hathaway Creative Center in Waterville. Multiple practices are housed in most of its locations.

Steve Diaz, MaineGeneral’s chief medical officer. Courtesy photo.

MaineGeneral started initiatives to address the coronavirus pandemic early on — before it was formally announced it had spread to Maine — and has a detailed plan to address COVID-19. The plan is detailed in hundreds of pages in length and includes information about reorganization of services, screening, cancellation of elective or nonurgent surgeries, implementation of tele-business for nonurgent issues, reduction of visits and an inventory of resources.

On Nov. 6, the Portland Press Herald reported MaineGeneral had hit its record for confirmed COVID-19 inpatients for the week ending Nov. 5. That earned MaineGeneral the distinction of being the hospital bearing the largest burden of COVID patients in the state: 6.7 inpatients per day. On Nov. 5, MaineGeneral had nine patients.

In addition to caring for the sick, MaineGeneral staff are educating the public about COVID and prevention care, fielding calls and working to ensure people at home and in the workplace, including medical facilities, are safe. It is exhausting work, but employees are eager to continue, according to Hays.

As the pandemic continues, he and other officials are focused on helping staff to maintain resiliency, he said. The unprecedented nature of schools opening and closing causes stress for MaineGeneral employees who have children and may produce economic stress because a significant other is out of work. But they continue to work hard, even when deployed to other jobs within the system because of the pandemic, he said.

“We’ve asked a lot of our staff and they’ve responded very well,” Hays said.

While one might surmise that at least some staff would jump ship during a pandemic, apparently the opposite is true at MaineGeneral.

“We haven’t had a large exodus — to the contrary,” Hays said. “Our turnover numbers are down. We worry about that as the pandemic continues to grow. Quite frankly, when we came in in the beginning of this, people came to work, and we said, you’re deployed to other jobs. Even with that, they were happy to help and happy to be redeployed. Sports Medicine staff were screening patients and visitors at the front. I think we’re very lucky to have the staff that we have. They’ve buckled down and taken on additional tasks without a peep.”

UPCOMING DAYS, WEEKS

With the holidays around the corner, people will naturally want to see family members with whom they do not live, according to Diaz. The models show there will be an uptick in COVID cases in Maine and nationwide, he said.

Because of that expectation, Diaz said MaineGeneral must appeal to its team to stay safe and vigilant. The healthcare system has planned for the surge and is confident it can see it through.

He and Hays said people in the community are getting tired of the pandemic and less vigilant about the things they can do to prevent the spread of the virus, such as wearing masks. They also are staying inside more because of the weather.

But Diaz urges people not to let their guard down over the next several weeks. It is critical they stay with their family, cohort or pod this holiday season and follow safety protocols.

“The other point, which is a very American thing — if you’re sick, stay home,” he said.

People have a tendency to say they just have a little cough or fever and leave the house for work or other activity, he said. Pre-pandemic, that illness, such as the flu, may not have had the potential of spreading a lethal disease such as COVID-19. But now, there will not be a magic vaccine here quickly enough to fix the situation, according to Diaz.

“If you’re ill, you must stay home,” he said.

He also urged people to practice kindness, patience and self care. Take a break and take a breath, he said.

“More than anything, you’ve got to be patient right now,” he said.

Hays said the Augusta hospital has 198 beds and can take up to 250 patients in a surge. MaineGeneral also has adequate supplies, according to Diaz and Hays. While back in March there was a nationwide shortage of ventilators and masks, that has changed.

“Fast-forward to November 2020, there are enough supplies, and we constantly purchase to stay ahead of the curve,” Diaz said, adding that there are plenty of respirators, ventilators and other items.

“Right now, we’re doing well with personal protective equipment,” he said.

Funding for the pandemic is another story. Support from the federal government was huge for MaineGeneral in the beginning, according to Hays.

“But we lost $10 million last year,” he said. “Obviously, the pandemic isn’t without its challenges, and the current federal funding for us has run out.”

He said he is hopeful more federal dollars applied for will be forthcoming, though no one knows when that might be

“We find out when it shows up in our bank account,” he said. “Once we get through our change of presidency in Washington, hopefully, they’ll look at more funding.”

MaineGeneral remains connected to other healthcare systems and is in constant communication and coordination with the governor’s office and the state Department of Health and Human Services around planning, safe reopenings, vaccines, new therapies and what it means to be vigilant and ensure people are safe in communities.

“The state has been incredibly cooperative and transparent and, I think, has done a fantastic job addressing a public health crisis that we’ve never had to address before,” Hays said.

He said MaineGeneral has always been, and continues to be, the go-to hospital for communities, including schools, colleges and businesses that want to know when and how to open safely, and how to protect students and employees and more.

Diaz, who fields calls both during the week and on weekends and gets little sleep, according to Hays, sees the situation as needing everyone’s help and cooperation.

“We’re all in this together,” he said. “I have children in three different Waterville area schools, a lot of friends who own or are in charge of businesses. It’s a big deal. It’s a big deal that we all get this right.”

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