by Terry Rogers
Throughout the country, healthcare professionals are battling what seems to be a hidden enemy, COVID-19, also known as the coronavirus. The virus, which began in China back in December 2019 has infected over 1,000 people in Delaware, hospitalized over 200 and killed more than a twenty. Throughout the pandemic, Bayhealth has been on the front lines of the virus, testing, diagnosing and treating those who have become infected. Dr. John Fink, a family practice physician, explained how the hospital is handling the crisis and provided information to help people understand more about the virus.
“Most of the people we are seeing have mild symptoms,” Dr. Fink said. “Some have symptoms so mild they may not even know they have this which is why social distancing and hand washing is so critical. Right now, I think people understand the test kit limits and we are not getting many people without symptoms calling in and asking for a test. Those that are coming to us have developed symptoms they think may be from the virus.”
Bayhealth is asking that anyone who develops symptoms not come directly to the Emergency Department but instead call the hotline set up by the hospital to be screened. The hotline is staffed by nurses and physicians who will ask a series of questions to determine if the person has the classic symptoms of COVID-19.
“The symptoms can be different in each person and range from mild to severe,” Dr. Fink said. “The most common symptoms we are seeing is a fever that usually lasts about two days. Initially, we were telling people to call in with a fever of 100.5 but now we have lowered that to 99.5. They may have a cough or shortness of breath. These are the most common symptoms of coronavirus. Recently, it has been discovered that a sudden loss of taste or smell may appear in some who have the virus. This is not like the typical loss of taste or smell with a stuffy nose but sudden onset for no apparent reason. If someone exhibits any of these symptoms or they know they have been exposed, they should contact the hotline to arrange for testing.”
Terry Murphy, President and CEO of Bayhealth, explained that pre-screening helps the process go smoothly. The hotline staff provide a select time for the person with symptoms to go to a drive-up testing site.
“Since patients have been pre-screened, our registration process and the testing process is very efficient,” Murphy said. “We are completing these tests in less than five minutes and patients are given instructions on what to do next as well as how they will receive the test results.”
Dr. Fink explained that this is not an airborne virus. Unlike other types of viruses that can float in the air, this virus is slightly heavier. If someone coughs or sneezes, droplets containing the virus fall from the air and land on surfaces. Research indicates that the droplets can travel between four and six feet. Simply touching the virus will not infect someone as it is unable to penetrate the skin. It enters the body through mucous membranes, like your eyes or nose. Therefore, if you touch a surface with the virus and then touch your face, you could be at higher risk of becoming infected. Again, Dr. Fink stated that social distancing and frequent hand washing are the best ways to protect yourself against contracting the virus.
“We would love to test everyone in the area,” Dr. Fink said. “But, like everywhere else in the country, we just don’t have enough tests to do that. We are not running out of them but want to conserve as much as possible which is why we are only testing symptomatic people. The state and federal governments are working hard to get more tests to us. We are working on doing our testing in-house rather than send them off to other labs as the turnaround time is between 7 and 10 days. If we do them in-house, we may be able to get results in a day or two.”
All tests performed at Bayhealth are nasal swabs and test for the actual virus. Dr. Fink explained that the nasal swab tests are completely different than the antibody tests that require a finger prick. The nasal swab looks for actual active virus while the antibody tests simply check the blood for antibodies which may indicate someone has the virus or has had it and their body is fighting it off. Right now, there is not much information regarding antibodies to determine whether having them in someone’s system means they are immune as that research is still ongoing. Dr. Fink explained that testing will provide additional information about how the virus operates and how the body responds to it.
“I know that many people say that they think they had this virus back in December or January,” Dr. Fink said. “It is actually possible that they did but there is no evidence that this virus showed up here in the United States before February. The concern with this thinking is that people will convince themselves they already had it and are immune. We simply do not know this for sure. The antibody test may be positive but we don’t really know what that means at this time. Until conduct more research, we have to go on the assumption that we can be infected. It is true that people can build immunity to a virus once they have had it, but we don’t know enough about this one to say this is true or how long immunity may last.”
Dr. Fink pointed out that anyone who is told their test is positive should not panic but should take specific steps. These steps are critical even while they wait for the results to be returned.
“Anyone who receives a positive test result should take steps to protect everyone else around them,” Dr. Fink said. “They need to isolate themselves in one room. If possible, use a different bathroom than everyone else in the home. Wipe down all surfaces as often as possible with disinfecting solutions as this has been shown to kill the virus. What we are finding is that by the time we call many of those who test positive in 7 to 10 days, they report feeling better already.”
People who have underlying health conditions, including lung issues and diabetes, seem to be the most at risk for developing a serious case of the virus. Although diabetes does not normally affect the lungs, it appears that because the body is busy dealing with high sugar levels, it is unable to fight off other threats as well. Diabetics are more susceptible to infections of any type and COVID-19 is no exception.
“There are reports from the state that we will see a peak in the next few weeks here in Delaware,” Dr. Fink said. “That concerns us. What we are seeing is that aggressive social distancing works, but we expect to see a rise in cases here. As long as there is no vaccine, all of us continue to be at risk. We are seeing an increase in critically ill people recently. It is important for people to understand that if they or a loved one are placed on a ventilator because they have a serious case of COVID-19, it does not mean they are going to die. The ventilator will help them breathe as their body works to fight off the virus.”
Currently, Bayhealth is trying to extend their resources as much as possible in order to be sure they have enough personal protection equipment, including masks, gloves, gowns and respirators, to treat patients.
“It is almost like money in your bank account,” Dr. Fink said. “There is never enough. But we have done a really good job of conserving as much as we can. We have enough for today and will have enough for tomorrow and beyond.”
Murphy echoed Dr. Fink regarding following CDC guidelines regarding social distancing, asking for the community’s help to fight the virus.
“I would also add that the community continues to be very supportive of every healthcare worker,” Murphy said. “We have received a number of phone calls from individuals and community members who want to help. We appreciate that love being shared by the community and we look forward to getting through this with our community.”
Dr. Fink supported Murphy’s sentiments.
“Don’t be afraid, just be aware,” Dr. Fink said. “It is the real deal. If we did nothing, it would be far worse. Social distancing will work and the more of us that do it, the quicker this will be over.”
The Bayhealth COVID-19 hotline number is 302-310-8477. The line is open Monday through Friday from 8:15 AM until 6 PM. On Saturday and Sunday, the hotline is open from 10 AM until 2 PM. Symptomatic individuals are also able to email firstname.lastname@example.org. The Department of Public Health entered into a collaboration with the United Way of Delaware to triage incoming calls to their hotline which can be reached by calling 211 or 1-800-560-3372. For those who are hard of hearing, dial 711 or text their ZIP Code to 898-211.