The Regional Medical Center is utilizing outside or contract workers as about 30 of its own salaried employees are out due to coronavirus-related issues.
"It is important when people come here that there is someone here to care for them," RMC President and CEO Charles Williams said during a Monday press conference. "We are also concerned about our staffing because it is not just COVID. We are now in hurricane season and we also have flu season coming."
Williams explained the 30 employees currently out with COVID-related issues either have themselves tested positive for COVID-19 or have family members who have been exposed.
Overall, he said 69 RMC employees have been impacted by COVID-19 since March.
"When we talk about social distancing and masking, it is not just important at the hospital," Williams said. "If my loved one is out at the store or a restaurant and they contract it, then I have to live with them. Then I cannot come to the hospital and deliver the care that the community needs."
Williams said due to the impact of COVID-19, the hospital is contracting staff, as are most hospitals in the state.
"On average we use about 25 contract staff members a day," he said. "Right now, our need is at 70."
"You can have the need but is it available?" Williams said. "Across our state on average there is a requisition out for 800 contract staff members in need. The last week the need is about 10,000 across the state. That is a major gap we have to make up."
RMC Chief Nursing Officer Dana Dalton said there is keen competition for staffing across the state.
"It is a system of checks and balances," Dalton said. "We have been lucky enough to procure quite a few of those agency staff or travelers. ... We will see those nurses continue to filter in and support us through the month of August."
Williams stressed the continued importance of the community wearing masks, practicing social distancing, practicing good hand hygiene and not engaging in unnecessary social gatherings.
But he predicted more is to come.
"I really don't think we have seen the impact of the Fourth of July yet, and let's be clear, Labor Day is coming," he said. "Let's be clear flu season is coming. We must do all we can to combat this pandemic."
"Take this seriously," he said. "So many individuals continue to make the statement ... well my civil liberties. I am not a politician, but I want to be clear with you: We are in a state where your civil liberties are jeopardizing the liberties, the freedom and health of others."
He noted there are "only so many beds and so many staff" available to care for the ill.
Chief of Medical Staff/RMC Medical Director, Infection Control Dr. John Samies blames the uptick of COVID-19 on individuals letting "their guard down."
"They started traveling a bit more, they started congregating a bit more," he said. "I think unfortunately until someone in your household is ill or dying, it isn't real to you and people have avoided doing the things that are appropriate."
In addition to hospital employees being affected, the hospital has 54 patients in house having tested positive for COVID-19.
Since March, over 4,000 people have been tested at RMC, with 896 testing positive, Williams said.
About 30 people having come through RMC have died from COVID-19, while 286 have been treated and released to their families, Williams said.
Samies said there have been some concerns about COVID-19 death reporting, with some questioning if the deaths are due in fact to the coronavirus.
He explained there are direct deaths and attributable deaths. In attributable deaths, a person may have died from another direct cause but COVID-19 contributed to that specific event.
"Sadly it has become a little bit of a political football," Samies said of COVID-19 death reports. "The people who passed away here truly are people who had COVID at the time and we believe it was a major contribution to their death."
Readiness to meet COVID-19 demand
In an effort to prepare for patient influx and to be self-sufficient in its care for the community, the hospital has worked with Orangeburg County Emergency Management, the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control and S.C. Emergency Management to create an Alternate Care Site. The site is located near the emergency room entrance.
The ACS is still two to three weeks from being ready, as the hospital is in the process of purchasing bedding, equipment, portable toilet and shower systems.
Prior to opening, it will be inspected by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.
Currently, RMC has 154 of 162 beds staffed.
"That can go up," Williams said. "If we have five or six patients a day, we don't have discharges."
"Having a bed means nothing if you don't have the staff to take care of them," he said. "Your licensed beds don't mean nothing if you don't have staff."
Vice President of Operations Matt Hinkle explained in March that when COVID-19 hit the hospital, RMC had about six negative internal pressure rooms. Those eventually increased to 44 and are now at 71.
"That taxes our HVAC system very much because the negative pressure space does not allow us to send return air back to the HVAC system," he said. "We have to monitor the humidity and temperature of those spaces very routinely in order to maintain temperature."
He said the ACS tent will help the hospital offload the capacity it has internally.
The ACS will provide space for individuals who will typically be discharged within 24 to 48 hours and that do not need to be continually monitored.
"These patients are on the upswing," he said. "They have the ability to improve quickly and be discharged out of the hospital, thus freeing up beds in a capacity that we have for those patients who are more critical and more acute."
The ACS will be staffed with RMC and contract labor.
Hinkle said to his knowledge, RMC is the first hospital in the state to request such a setup as the ACS.
Concerned about COVID-19?
Sign up now to get the most recent coronavirus headlines and other important local and national news sent to your email inbox daily.