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St. Luke prepared for continued COVID-19 response

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By Mary Auld for the Valley Journal

RONAN – Lake County has seen nearly 200 cases of the coronavirus since the pandemic began this spring, and hospitals are continuing to provide prevention and treatment. 

At St. Luke Community Healthcare, patients can get antibody tests, which determine whether a person has been infected in the past, and diagnostic tests are also available, which determine whether a person is infected at the time of the test. 

Not everyone qualifies for testing at St. Luke. Those who are asymptomatic and have not had close contact with someone who is confirmed to have the virus do not qualify. The health department does contact tracing on each confirmed case, and then gets in touch with those “close contacts” who are at risk. The hospital also tests all expecting mothers before they deliver their babies and those who are going into surgery in the hospital. St. Luke employees are also tested even if they are not exhibiting symptoms. 

St. Luke does not offer rapid testing, which other locations use to tell people whether they have the virus in just hours. Instead, all tests are sent to the state of Montana’s lab where they are processed.

Across the country, public health experts have expressed worries that patients aren’t hearing back about their test results for long periods of time. Abigail Byers, St. Luke’s director of nursing, said a healthcare provider assigns a priority rating to each test. That rating impacts how quickly the tests are processed. Byers said St. Luke is getting their highest priority tests back in between 24 and 48 hours; however, patients who have not shown strong symptoms or have been in contact with someone who has a confirmed case of the virus sometimes wait nearly two weeks to get their results. 

St. Luke is staying the course with protocols they implemented at the beginning of the pandemic to protect staff and patients from becoming infected. Employees wear mask and eye protection, and patients are required to wear masks. The hospital follows the Centers for Disease Control’s developing guidelines as scientists learn more about the virus. 

While there haven’t been too many serious cases in Lake County, St. Luke partners with other hospitals in the region for care of seriously ill patients. Those who need to be cared for in an intensive care unit are transferred to another facility. Byers said, so far, this partnership has worked well, and other hospitals have had the capacity to take on St. Luke’s seriously ill patients. St. Luke does have plans to care for those more serious cases locally if the other hospitals with ICUs become overwhelmed at some point. Byers said St. Luke is better prepared to care for milder cases of the virus. 

The pandemic isn’t over, and the area may yet see a surge in cases. St. Luke Community Hospital has a plan for how to care for high numbers of infected patients. That preparation includes staff drills to work through different scenarios that might emerge for various volumes of patients. 

Byers said St. Luke’s staff has already proven its ability to respond to spikes in the number of cases and increases in demands on the hospital.

“Our providers and staff did an exceptional job of responding to the high testing demand we saw after the 4th of July holiday," she said.




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