Dr. Elizabeth Piccione

Dr. Elizabeth Piccione, vice president of medical affairs for UPMC Jameson in New Castle.

Three UPMC hospitals in Lawrence and Mercer counties are able to test and treat patients with COVID-19 symptoms, medical personnel said Thursday.

Doctors and administrators from the health system touted the readiness of UPMC Jameson Hospital, UPMC Horizon Hospital and UPMC Horizon in Greenville during a media conference call. Their message is that they have the necessary equipment and personnel, and that they are emphasizing the need for the public to continue social distancing and increased hand-washing.

Dr. Elizabeth Piccione, vice president of medical affairs at UPMC Jameson, said that all three hospitals are testing patients by collecting samples and taking them to a testing site in Pittsburgh. And while there are two different categories of testing — for symptomatic and asymptomatic individuals — she added that "nobody without symptoms has an absolute need to be tested."

If patients are symptomatic — experiencing shortness of breath, cough and fever — they are divided into groups of those requiring hospitalization and those who do not, Piccione said. 

For those with symptoms who are outpatients, the state Department of Health is helping to arrange tests at outpatient centers, and for patients who go to the emergency department for treatment, arrangements are made for outpatient testing at UPMC sites. 

The state Department of Health on Thursday confirmed three new cases of coronavirus in Lawrence County, bringing the total to 13. Mercer County has nine confirmed cases. Two people have died from the virus in Lawrence County. There have been no coronavirus-affiliated deaths in Mercer County.

Piccione also offered assurances that within the UPMC system, there is an adequate number of ventilators should the need arise because of a more widespread outbreak in the area.

HOSPITAL CAPABILITIES

While Piccione noted that "All of our hospitals are capable of caring for patients who have the COVID-19 virus," she said that some will be transferred to another UPMC facility. That decision, she went on, is predicated on whether the patient requires extra mechanical support. "There are only certain hospitals in the UPMC system that have that," Piccione said, adding, "we will make sure they get to the right place."

Otherwise, "we are prepared at all three of these sites to take care of these patients in their own communities."

Rob Jackson, president of UPMC Horizon and UPMC Jameson, said that the medical equipment at the two hospitals is "nowhere near" being used to its full capabilities.

"We have a vast supply of ventilators and a well-developed logistics plan to support sites that might get busier than others," he said. "We have a plan for every scenario. If Jameson or Farrell (Horizon) runs out, prior to that happening we would be getting equipment from our other sites. We want to reassure people that we are prepared."

Dr. Sam Daisley, vice president of medical affairs at UPMC Horizon, noted that the health system's plan for more staffing also has been well planned.

And while each of the three local hospitals has different staffing levels, UPMC has a vast, technical telemedicine capability, Piccione said, "and we have critical care teams that look at these patients any hour of the day."

CARING FOR THE SICK

Because this time of year is flu season, and because coronavirus symptoms can be similar to those of the flu, the hospitals are seeing more flu sufferers heading for the hospital. 

""We don't have the capacity to test that amount of people," Daisley said. "The reality is, you don't want to be in a hospital unless you require ventilatory support or advanced oxygen support. You're much better off to treat flu-like symptoms in a quarantine environment."

He emphasized that most people with coronavirus have only mild symptoms from which they recover.

The hospital officials also emphasized the precautions people need to take in their everyday lives to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

Dana Piatek, manager of Infection Prevention for UPMC Horizon and UPMC Jameson, emphasized, "This is a new virus and things can change. Staying on top of social distancing and remaining at home is the best option you have. The statewide stay-home order goes back to flattening the curve. We've started to see that.

"We don't know who is carrying the virus, so everyone has to be considered a potential source for it," she added.

Whether the numbers will peak any time soon here, no one knows, Jackson said. "Based on the amount of positive tests we're seeing locally, there's not a large enough number to make any real prediction."

DISTANCING, HANDWASHING

Piccione noted that most people who contract coronavirus are not going to get critically ill, but there is a population — "our most vulnerable patients, who will unfortunately die.

"The only way we know how to break the chain for transmission is for people to not come in contact with other people," she stressed. "When they do, they are putting themselves and families at exponential risk."

COVID-19 is an aerosolized virus, meaning that it travels in small water droplets in the air, she continued. "If someone sneezes and coughs, the likelihood you will be infected is small if you are at least six feet away.

"Washing hands and continuing social distancing cannot be overstated," she said. "Social distancing helps, it's not forever, so just keep washing your hands 100 times a day."

And when hand sanitizers and antibacterial soap aren't available, washing with regular soap and water for 20 seconds is just as good, Daisley advised.

Whether or not patients have funds or health insurance, Jackson assured that the UPMC hospitals have a commitment to care for anyone who comes into the hospital sick.

The hospital system also has committed to protecting the pay of its workforce for at least the next couple of weeks, Jackson said. "We know through that paid protection plan that we will have the personnel that we need."

dwachter@ncnewsonline.com

Reporter

Debbie's been a journalist at the New Castle News since 1978, and covers county government, police and fire, New Castle schools, environment and various other realms. She also writes features, takes photos and video and copy edits.

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