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Kirby Medical Center Among Rural Hospitals Facing COVID-19 Challenges

MONTICELLO – Rural hospitals in Illinois face unique challenges as COVID-19 continues to surge across the state. Many don’t have an intensive care unit, so patients who need a higher level of care must be transferred elsewhere. 

Pat Schou, executive director of the Illinois Critical Access Hospital Network – an association of more than 50 rural hospitals – recently told NPR Illinois that as larger hospitals fill up, transfers become more difficult.

Kirby Medical Center in Piatt County is one of Illinois’ 53 critical access hospitals, a federal designation for hospitals providing essential health services in rural areas. 

The Monticello hospital has an emergency department and 16 inpatient beds. Like many hospitals across the state, Kirby Medical Center has seen an uptick in hospitalizations in recent months.

Kirby Medical Center chief executive officer Steven Tenhouse spoke with Illinois Newsroom about how the hospital is faring.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Christine Herman: What has been Kirby Medical Center’s experience in recent months? 

Steven Tenhouse: We haven’t seen a really significant amount of COVID patients within those inpatient beds. But you know, what we’re feeling is, obviously, the compression from the hospitals around us that are seeing a lot more [COVID patients]. 

It’s also flu season. People just typically are sicker this time of year, and generally need more hospitalization.

So those two things combined have definitely pushed our census to a higher level. 

Patients have a choice where they want to go. Some of the other hospitals around us are filling up, either with more acute patients or with COVID, and are just feeling a little bit of that pressure. So, we’re having the opportunity to care for more folks here in Monticello.

CH: So you’re saying that you’re seeing more patients from the area who might typically go to other places for care? Or are you seeing patients from other areas come to you because maybe other hospitals are filling up?

ST: It’s a little bit of both. It’s not impossible, but it is more difficult this year than ever before for patients to get a timely hospitalization.

And therefore, I think we are seeing some of [those patients coming] here. But, you know, we’re a community hospital, we provide great care. And it’s great to see people trust us with that care.

CH: I’ve looked at statewide data on hospital capacity, and at least for ICU beds, lots of regions across the state are 80% or nearing that point. Has Kirby Medical Center gotten to the point of being concerned about capacity?

ST: We don’t have an ICU here at Kirby Medical Center, so any ICU patients would be transferred to another hospital around us. And that, you know, at times has been difficult to find a placement.

But we can still isolate patients and manage those that are in need of an intensive care unit. And some of the uptick on the inpatient side that we’ve seen is just caring for those patients locally.

CH: Can you talk about what that process is like, and if it’s gotten more challenging to find a space for patients that need a higher level of care?

Carle and OSF leaders in Champaign-Urbana have said during a recent press conference that they get calls from hospitals farther away than usual seeking to transfer a patient, and many of those hospitals will say, ‘You’re the 10th place, 15th place we’ve called to find a bed for this patient.’

Have you encountered those kinds of scenarios as a rural hospital trying to find a place for a patient?

ST: Yes, and a lot of times it will depend on what the patient’s care need is, [which] maybe will impact the type of bed that’s needed and what’s available. But yes, and again I would say, especially this year and this time of year, it has been more difficult. 

And it’s no one’s fault. It’s the result of the pandemic and the spread of COVID.

But again, all those hospitals around us do a fantastic job of trying to accommodate that need. And our emergency department physicians or hospital group will communicate with those other hospitals to try to find that that placement, and to get that patient moved to that higher level of care.

CH: How are you preparing for the possibility that a coronavirus vaccine will be ready to distribute soon in Illinois, with health care workers among the first to receive it?

ST: The way we understand it will happen is the vaccine will come to our local health department and they will then distribute a percentage of those vaccines to us, and also to congregate living facilities in our area.

My understanding is that shipments will happen in stages. So that will allow us to first start getting some of our health care workers and first responders vaccinated and work our way through the departments.

We know there are some side effects that can impact people, so when we plan on rolling out that vaccine plan to our staff, we will probably stagger it across departments. We don’t want to have one department have all their staff get the vaccine and have some sort of side effects that could cause the department to become short-staffed. So we’re putting that plan together right now so that when the vaccine is available we’ll be able to immediately start rolling that out. 

CH: Are there things you wish the public better understood about what hospitals like yours are dealing with right now? Or is there a message that you want to convey to the public regarding just the current situation?

ST: Well, I first would just like to thank everybody who is taking the precautions, as far as social distancing and wearing protective equipment.

I guess the message I want people to know is that we’re always here. If you’re sick, we can take care of you. We’re taking our own precautions, obviously, to make sure everybody’s protected. But just communicate with your physician or nurse, whoever you’re talking to; if you’re sick, be open and frank about what’s going on. 

I know a lot of times people can perhaps be hesitant [to seek help], if they are worried that they have COVID symptoms. Don’t be. Be open and frank. That’s the best thing that you can do… and get the care that you need.

Christine Herman is a reporter with Illinois Newsroom. Follow her on Twitter: @CTHerman

Picture of Christine Herman

Christine Herman

Christine Herman is a Ph.D. chemist turned audio journalist who covers health for the Illinois Newsroom. Her reporting for Illinois Public Media/WILL has received awards from the Illinois Associated Press Broadcasters Association, the Public Media Journalists Association and has reached both regional and national audiences through WILL's health reporting partnership with Side Effects Public Media, NPR and Kaiser Health News. Christine started at WILL in 2015.

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