Stephens Memorial Hospital is starting to reschedule non-essential procedures cancelled due to COVID-19. Brewster Burns photo

NORWAY — It has been more than nine weeks since the first reported case of COVID-19 in Maine, with the virus reaching Oxford Hills about two week later. Now, as most counties in Maine look toward a gradual reopening of the economy, Stephens Memorial Hospital is focused on creating a new normal for patient care.

Providers throughout the state have delayed all but the most essential healthcare procedures since March. Chief Medical Officer Gregory Hardy, MD said SMH is ready to transition back to time-sensitive surgeries and treatment for patients who can no longer delay their care.

“We have a backlog on procedures,” Hardy said in an interview Monday. “Patients requiring immediate attention have been given priority and now we are reviewing other, less critical cases and incorporating care for those patients into hospital operations.”

Western Maine Health President Andrea Patstone said the top priority for the next phase of healthcare during the public health emergency is safety for both patients and employees, and for patients to be assured that they will be safe when receiving care.

She said that SMH is scheduling time-sensitive procedures and will add non-essential treatments once it is caught up. She asks for patience as the hospital reaches out to people who have been waiting for elective surgeries and other treatments.

Dr. Greg Hardy, chief medical officer, and Andrea Patstone, Western Maine Healthcare president, photographed outside Stephens Memorial Hospital in Norway on March 26. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

“We are putting new safety protocols in place,” said Patstone. “Starting next week, each employee reporting to work will be monitored daily to identify any symptoms. We have put in place a reduced schedule that allows social distancing and ample time between patients for cleaning and sanitizing. All staff are required to wear masks at all times, and patients will be provided a mask if they do not have one. And registration and enrollment will be done by phone with no face-to-face contact wherever possible.

“It may be a long time before doctors’ visits and procedures are back to 100% capacity.”

While some hospitals in Maine have furloughed or laid off employees because of COVID-19’s impact on other healthcare services, Patstone said SMH’s corporate parent MaineHealth has worked to protect employees as it weathers the ongoing crisis, a move that will make ramping up delayed procedures a smoother transition.

“System-wide, MaineHealth is seeing losses of $93 million each month,” she said. “The healthcare system has traded short-term profitability for the long-term economic health of its employees. I am proud of the way we have been able to protect our staff through this crisis.  Overall, I believe this will result in a stronger system in the long run.”

Patstone said that SMH is taking a cautious approach to resuming services as it closely watches coronavirus trends. As of Tuesday Maine reports 511 active cases statewide. Oxford county has recorded 17 cases since March 22 – nine that month, six in April and just two so far in May. According to Maine’s Center for Disease Control data, only one case in Oxford County required hospitalization.

“We are entering a new phase of delivering healthcare,” she said. “If we see any resurgence of COVID-19, we will be ready to respond accordingly by ramping our services back down as necessary. Adequate testing resources will be essential to the ability of the state to re-open, and the same is true for healthcare providers.”

Hardy added that patients should expect differences to what they have seen in the past.

“Safety for all is our guide,” he said. “The flow patients experience as they seek care will be different. For some types of care, we will conduct COVID-19 testing on patients before their procedure.  Some things may take longer, but we expect people will understand that the changes are in the best interests of everyone involved.”

SMH officials view Governor Janet Mills’ announcement last week that Maine is entering into an agreement with IDEXX Laboratories, Inc. that will allow up to 5,000 COVID-19 tests to be processed on a weekly basis as very positive news.

“With more available testing we do expect to see more cases,” Hardy added. “But in the long run more testing is essential to our capacity as a state to control the virus.”

MaineHealth provides daily support to its member organizations, which include 10 hospitals, a home health agency, and NorDx laboratory.  Patstone said being part of a large system has benefited not only the facilities but patients throughout Maine.

“Collectively, we are all in better condition to provide care,” she said. “The system oversees our supply chain and management of critical items such as personal protective equipment (PPE), and we have  system wide protocols in place to ensure patients are cared for in the setting best suited for their condition.”

Hardy said that anecdotally, people in Oxford Hills have done well to keep transmission rates of the virus low. Community transmission has not been a critical issue and long-term care facilities and nursing homes in the area took early steps to ensure residents had minimal exposure.

“Oxford Hills residents should continue practicing social distancing to curtail spread of the virus” as the state opens up, said Hardy. “The guidelines that the CDC has put in place were the correct ones and we should continue to follow them.”


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