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LVHN details early battle with COVID-19 cases

Lehigh Valley Health Network shed light Wednesday night on how it has handled the health care crisis gripping the world, while continuing to look to the future.

During the virtual meeting, Dr. Brian A. Nester, president and chief executive officer of LVHN, said COVID-19 was actually on the radar in February when they began monitoring its spread.

“It hit in March fast and hard,” he said.

As a result, the network searched worldwide to find and purchase enough PPE to ensure protection of its staff, so they could care for the sick.

The intensive care units began filling up and lifesaving equipment lined the hallways.

The network also began battling the virus in communities, such as Hazleton that saw an uptick of cases.

Dr. Patricia Martin, president of LVHN Medical Staff, said LVHN formed a task force in Hazleton with the Chamber of Commerce, school district, and local and state representatives to address the spread of the virus.

Martin said the Latinx community has expanded in Hazleton over the years due to the number of manufacturing jobs and affordable housing. To date, 60% of its population descends from people from Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Peru and Mexico. This growth has brought economic growth in business, but it also has caused some racial tensions.

“The task force convinced business leaders to discontinue the practice of shuttling in workers from New York City into the Hazleton plants, to close several plants until they could implement safety measures, and to stop penalizing workers who had to call out sick,” she said.

The task force also worked with local media to get information out about mask wearing, social distancing, and hand washing in both Spanish and English. And plans were made to utilize a local hotel where COVID-19 patients could stay and recover, instead of being out in the community and possibly spreading the disease.

“By launching these initiatives, the task force earned the respect of the Latinx community. And together, they quickly flattened the curve,” Martin said. “The success of the Hazleton COVID Task Force demonstrates that it is possible for health care providers to tackle the socio-economic determinates of health, when they recruit community allies and deliver culturally responsive care.”

As the virus raged in the valley, things changed there, too. Nester said 66% of the 24,000 patient visits in April were through virtual appointments.

COVID testing centers were established to keep those patients separate from other patients. LVHN also provided remote patient monitoring equipment to patients who didn’t need hospitalization, so they could monitor their temperatures and blood oxygen levels at home.

LVHN increased its online presence with new educational features and health tips on its website, and established emotional support services for staff who were feeling stressed.

On May 1, elective surgeries resumed in three COVID-free surgical centers that are physically separate from the hospitals where COVID patients were being treated. And the network began treating patients with Remdesivir and convalescent plasma therapy that month.

The network also began participating in the vaccine research and asked its employees if anyone would be willing to participate. Within hours, they had enough staff come forward to participate.

“That’s partnership. That’s heroism,” Nester said.

For the perspective of a COVID patient at LVHN, Nester told the story of Lata Annayya from New Jersey.

Annayya became sick in April after her husband began showing symptoms. Because of a fever and trouble breathing, she sought help at her local hospital.

“I never knew suffering of this kind existed,” she said.

Within in a week, her condition had deteriorated and she was near death.

She was transported to LVHN-Cedar Crest, where she was immediately placed on ECMO (Extracorporeal membrane oxygenation). Nester explained that the machine pumps blood out of the body, removes carbon dioxide, infuses it with oxygen, and returns it to the body.

Annayya was in the ICU on a ventilator for more than 40 days and on ECMO for 21 days.

Now home with her husband, she is grateful for the treatment she received at LVHN.

“I wish there was a better word than heroes,” she said. “I would call them warriors in the front line of this battle. I would say I’m in your debt forever. It’s a debt that I could never, never think of repaying. I’m filled with gratitude.”