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Providence sets up tents outside the medical center to treat those with respiratory illness

 GRAPHIC PHOTO: GARY ALLEN - Lori Bergen, chief executive at Providence Newberg Medical Center, stands in a special tent erected outside the facility's emergency department for intake of patients diagnosed with the coronavirus.

As the severity of the COVID-19 outbreak increases by the day in Oregon and throughout the United States, officials at Providence Newberg Medical Center are taking steps to prepare for the coronavirus' arrival in the community.

The medical center is in constant communication with its local medical partners as well as county, state and national health departments, focusing on prevention and preparing to treat those who contract COVID-19. On Sunday the first officially diagnosed case of COVID-19 was announced in Yamhill County, lending immediacy to the medical center's efforts.

"PNMC is taking this very seriously and doing considerable planning, but we are not in panic mode," PNMC chief executive Lori Bergen said on Thursday. "These type of situations from earthquakes to natural disasters and pandemics are things we actually plan for continually. We have prepared for something like this for a very long time, but that's not to say that there aren't nuances that make this situation challenging."

As part of its preparations for the virus, the medical center set up tents outside its emergency room to treat those with COVID-19 or other respiratory illnesses, should an influx of patients occur.

PNMC plans to monitor any change in directives from the federal Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the Oregon Health Authority as well as state and local leaders. The medical center has on-site testing for COVID-19 and Bergen said the testing capability should begin to expand in the coming weeks.

For now, though, Bergen said the medical center has all the necessary supplies it needs – from tests to respirator equipment to beds for patients.

"We do currently have the bed space to deal with this," Bergen said. "But as we've seen in other parts of the world, it could become problematic in the future. Our preparedness has always been to identify alternative care sites whether that is our other medical centers or the tent site we have set up outside the medical center.

"We do anticipate that we are going to get larger numbers of respiratory patients, whether they have COVID-19 or not. This is the season for respiratory illness and because of COVID-19 we want to minimize exposure for everybody. This tent will be an extension of our emergency department and will allow us to expedite their treatment."

PNMC will hospitalize patients if need be, but will delegate much of its work on COVID-19 and other respiratory illnesses to the tents they have set up. The ability to exchange medical supplies with other Providence medical centers will provide more respiratory equipment, along with tests once more become available from state and federal agencies.

Those worried about their ability to pay for a test or for treatment – whether it be due to a lack of insurance or otherwise – need not worry when it comes to receiving care at Providence, Bergen said.

"We want everyone in our community to know that we care for everyone regardless of their ability to pay," Bergen said. "We never want cost to be a barrier to anyone seeking care – they are always welcome to come and get the care they need at this medical center. That being said, we also want to make sure patients are getting care at the appropriate care site – if you are not sick enough to need medical center-type care, we recommend other avenues to get care."

Those with mild to moderate illness are not recommended to come to PNMC seeking care, because the medical center wants to have room and prioritize for those with severe illness. The elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions are more likely to suffer severe symptoms with COVID-19 than otherwise healthy adults or children.

Shortness of breath, exhaustion and a fever are three of the more severe symptoms of COVID-19 and people dealing with those symptoms should consider going to the medical center. Otherwise, PNMC recommends those with less severe symptoms of the illness consult with their primary care physician or receive online care.

Bergen said PNMC is taking extra steps to keep the medical center clean and prevent the spread of the illness among patients and staff. Many more people will come through the medical center with diseases or illnesses other than COVID-19, and she emphasized that they need to be protected as well.

"We adhere to stricter standards and are keeping our rooms extra clean because we don't want our patients or staff to spread this illness around should it arrive," she said. "This virus is a bit of an unknown and we still don't know how long it lives on surfaces or how it spreads, so we are operating with an abundance of caution."

If you feel like you are experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 and want to get tested, Bergen recommends you consider the severity of your symptoms. Tests are not available for those who don't meet a certain criterion of severity, and at this point they are largely reserved for those needing medical attention for COVID-19 symptoms.

Criteria for testing and other information on symptoms, prevention and PNMC's approach to the issue are all available online at Bergen said the medical center will provide updates on the virus as they get them and directed citizens to PNMC's Facebook page for updates as well.

At this point, the focus locally is on prevention and encouraging folks to engage in proper practices to protect public health. Avoiding a spread of COVID-19 will be the next, concurrent step once it pops up in Newberg.

"The best way to prevent illness is avoid being exposed to the virus," Bergen said. "Right now, we are getting guidance that we should all limit public contact, and we encourage everybody to make that their personal mission. Wash your hands for a lengthy period of time, use hand sanitizer, stay home if you are sick and try to work from home if possible. Buy adequate food and supplies to take care of yourself and don't spread misinformation or panic."

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