Hospitals Need to Recover from Covid, Too

Emerson Hospital in Concord is working its way back to normal, after more than two months of disruption awaiting a surge of Covid-19 patients that never came.

One of the byproducts of that hiatus was plummeting revenue which, when added with pandemic-related expenses, points to a $25 million deficit when the hospital’s fiscal years closes on Sept. 30.

“People are coming back, so they feel the hospital is safe,” declared Christine Schuster, Emerson president and CEO. “Some areas, like surgical services, imaging, and the lab are very busy. Some others are less busy, like the wellness center. Typically, there are in-person classes; now much is virtual. Elective surgery is fully open now.”

The hospital is well-stocked with personal protective equipment – masks, gloves, gowns – and “we take very strict precautions with our staff. We are going out of our way to keep our staff safe so we can keep our patients safe.”

There have been only one or two Covid-19 patients in the hospital over the past two weeks, Schuster noted, and “we haven’t had a staff member test positive in several weeks.”

Emerson was actually ahead of budgetary projections in early February, Schuster said. But a few weeks later the hospital by state order stopped most usual procedures and braced for an onslaught of patients with the virus that never materialized.

“We were in a tricky gray zone where we were ready for it – but there were days when we had five patients in the hospital and we couldn’t do anything else,” Schuster said. The double-edged sword of reduced revenue and increased virus-related expenses “definitely is impacting our hospital – and just about every hospital in the nation.”

“When you go for 65 days with no surgery, and you’re a hospital that relies on revenue from surgery, it can be very challenging,” Schuster said. “We have applied for any kind of federal and state funding. It’s really hard to make up for those 65 days.”

“It’s a waiting game at this point,” the president continued. Emerson is working with U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan and the head of the Massachusetts Hospital Association. Pursuing sources of reimbursement. One ironic policy that will cost Emerson is that federal reimbursement calculations are based on actual Covid cases treated, she said.

“We have put all of our capital items on hold. Luckily we didn’t have any major things that were going to be  impacted this year,” Schuster said. “The long-term impact – we will have to see what happens.”

Philanthropy has to be a major source of the recovery, she continued. “If there ever was a time when people could help, this would be it. What we need more than ever is generosity. And we thank the community so much for its support and its confidence in us.”

The hospital furloughed 45 employees resulting from the disappearing workload, and it’s too soon to bring anybody back, Schuster said.

She described the cautious protocols designed to manage any virus. A surgical patient is tested 72 hours before the procedure and is asked to self-quarantine for those three days. If the test is negative the patient accesses the surgical unit through a dedicated entrance. Involved medical and other staff members are also tested before every procedure.

“Everyone at the hospital is really well-trained,” Schuster said. “We think it is really important for people to wear a mask wherever they go. Evidence seems to be showing that it’s the smaller aerosolized transmission so everyone should stay six feet away and wear masks at all times.”

Schuster encouraged residents to address their medical concerns at Emerson. “The hospital is probably the safest place you can go to. It is not good for patients and it’s not good for the health of the hospital to delay care. Make sure to get preventive care – go to the emergency room, get checked out.”

Because of the two-month hiatus, “We have seen more advanced-stage cancers, and other things that have been let go that could have been caught at an earlier stage.”

Also available is testing for Covid, at the hospital in Concord and the urgent-care facility in Littleton. Schuster recommended the Emerson website for updates Click this link to learn more.

“I totally anticipate a second surge, probably in late fall or early winter, around flu season,” Schuster said. “We have great plans in place and we are ready for it. We really need to stay open during a surge.”

Ultimately, the president said, “The answer is we need to find a vaccine. Because until we do, we are in for a very long haul.”

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