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Hospital reschedules non-urgent surgeries

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Providence St. Mary Medical Center is postponing all non-urgent surgeries in a move to preserve resources needed through the COVID-19 virus pandemic.

Calls to patients started Tuesday night, as surgeries and procedures are delayed. The change begins Thursday, according to an announcement this morning from St. Mary.

Non-urgent surgeries and procedures will be delayed 60 days. Those include surgeries such as eye procedures to correct vision, urinary incontinence surgery, total joint replacements and most plastic surgery.

Surgeries that are considered urgent include surgery for broken bones, all obstetric procedures, gastrointestinal bleeding and heart attacks.

Physicians are reviewing each case to determine which ones can be delayed and which need to move forward, said Kathleen Obenland, director of communications for St. Mary and Providence Medical Group Walla Walla.

Delaying the surgeries at this time helps the hospital conserve blood, masks, gloves and gowns and dedicate those resources to assist the most critically ill patients in the community, the announcement explained.

The notice follows on the heels of a statement Tuesday from Dr. Christopher Hall, chief medical officer for St. Mary, explaining some of the challenges for health care at the moment.

“There is a shortage of testing materials, as well as long turn-around times getting test results back from the designated labs,” he said. “This delays diagnosis and hinders our ability to know the true local prevalence of the disease.

“There also is a global shortage of personal protective equipment (masks, gowns, gloves, etc.). Many of these products come from China which has experienced a large scale slowdown in production. Providence St. Mary currently has sufficient supplies but we also anticipate a massive increase in need will cause a critical shortage.”

He said St. Mary has developed fever clinics in its Emergency Department and Family Medicine.

“This allows us to separate patients experiencing symptoms of infectious diseases from patients coming in for other needs, and preserves our ability to safely care for all patients in our hospital and clinics,” his letter explained.

The Family Medicine fever clinic opened Tuesday. Patients of that operation who call for an appointment with symptoms of COVID-19 are directed to the east entrance of the Providence Family Medicine building, 1111 S. Second Ave.

The clinic has a separate waiting area and processes to prevent those patients from coming in contact with others.

“An obvious concern in this community is having enough hospital beds for the potential patients,” he continued. “

He said many treatments for COVID-19 requires negative flow rooms, meaning the air doesn’t get recycled back into the hospital. St. Mary commonly uses up to 80 beds. Currently, about 17 of those beds are in negative flow rooms, he said.

Those rooms are set up for one person per room but could be converted to double rooms for patients with the same illnesses. Units could be converted if necessary.

“We hope this does not come to pass, but if our hospital or others in the area suffer a critical bed shortage, we are exploring the possibility of using the main building at the Providence Southgate Medical Park (previous Walla Walla General Hospital) as a hospital once again,” he said.

That changeover would require coordination with state and local authorities.

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at

vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 509-526-8321.

Vicki covers business and economic development, including tourism, the Port of Walla Walla and the Strictly Business column, as well as features. She has been reporting for the Union-Bulletin since late 2001.

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