By: Felipe Rivas

Executive Vice President and Chief Physician Executive Scott Rissmiller details Atrium Health’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak

Charlotte, often described as the crown jewel for economic activity in North Carolina, has been greatly impacted by COVID-19. Located in Mecklenburg County, the city known for its bustling business district and active nightlife, has embraced the various shelter-in-place measures ordered by state and local governments. Atrium Health, the county’s largest employer, is a not-for-profit that operates hospitals, free-standing emergency departments and urgent care centers. The health system has taken the lead in handling the impact of the coronavirus by anticipating the impact of the pandemic and making the needed adjustments to treat the residents of Mecklenburg County and beyond. Executive Vice President and Chief Physician Executive Scott Rissmiller details Atrium Health’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak, including its innovative use of “virtual hospitals.”

What accommodations is Atrium Health making to handle the influx of patients due to the COVID-19 outbreak? 

While these are unprecedented times, we have had pandemics before and we prepare for them continuously. When we first saw that COVID-19 would become an issue in the United States, we immediately began mobilizing our teams to get us ready with extra supplies, develop alternate staffing plans and make accommodations for needed space. 

One of the more innovative ways we’re doing that is the Atrium Health COVID-19 Virtual Hospital. Patients whose condition allows for it can be given some mobile monitoring equipment, which allows them to remain in the comfort of their own home. We can still keep tabs on all of their vitals and have frequent touch points with them, just as we would if they were in the hospital itself. This goes a long way toward preventing additional spread, conserving personal protective equipment and freeing up additional bed space. 

We stopped doing non-essential surgeries a few weeks ago, which has also enabled us to reallocate staffing and free up additional space. All in all, we’ve identified ways to expand our patient capacity by roughly 50 percent, as we anticipate a surge of patients in April and May, which is why the stay at home directives are so important for people to observe. 

How can the community best assist the local healthcare providers in this time of need?

At Atrium Health, we have received such an outpouring of support during this pandemic. People are lining up to help make masks; they’re developing new innovations to solve problems, like using 3D printers to create face shields or repurposing a brewery to make hand sanitizer. It’s truly inspiring. We need more blood donations. Food donations are appreciated. There are many ideas about how people can be part of the community-wide effort to combat COVID-19 on our website.

Probably the biggest thing that every man, woman and child can do for us is to stay home; follow the stay at home directives. What we don’t want to see is the hospital systems in our area becoming overwhelmed with patients. The “flatten the curve” principles are absolutely what’s needed to keep the numbers of patients more manageable. This also gives us more time to see if there are medicines or vaccines that are found to be effective, and it’s possible that summertime weather may also be able to help slow down the spread. We don’t know that yet, but we believe it’s in everyone’s best interests to limit the spread now to give us the best chance to get things back under control and return to whatever normal may look like going forward. 

What would your message be to the local community that is sheltering in place and waiting for a return to normalcy?

First and foremost – do it. Please. The shelter in place has to apply to everyone for it to work. You may not get sick, or maybe get a mild case, but the person you infect may not be so lucky. That’s true even if you’ve touched something and then open the door at the grocery store. The grandmother who comes in right after you may pick up the virus from what you last touched. This virus spreads very easily, so avoid going out in public unless it’s absolutely necessary and, as simplistic as it sounds, wash your hands often. It works. 

Finally, if you are in medical distress, call 9-1-1. But if you are feeling ill, try a virtual visit before going to the hospital. It avoids you spreading what you have and helps prevent you from catching something else. If you have any type of respiratory illness and need to be seen in person at a clinic, urgent care or the emergency room, please call ahead so the healthcare workers can be ready to best assist you and limit your exposure to others.