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'Like Waiting For A Wildfire That You Know Is Coming': Local Hospitals Prepare For Coronavirus

Mar 24, 2020

Credit Alex Hager

While shops and restaurants around the Roaring Fork Valley have shut their doors to slow the spread of coronavirus, healthcare workers are gearing up for an overload. Dr. Ben Peery, a physician in the emergency department at Valley View Hospital in Glenwood Springs, said medical school doesn’t prepare doctors for situations like this one. 

“I'm almost 50 years old and I've never seen anything like this in my life,” Peery said. “As a physician in the last 17 years, I haven't seen anything like this either.”

Valley View, like other hospitals nationwide, is staring down the barrel of a patient overload, which could stress both their staff and their stocks of personal protective equipment, like masks and aprons.

Reports from Washington state are raising alarm about the sheer number of people that might have to be hospitalized. Peery says it’s like preparing for a wildfire that you know is coming.

“My colleagues are sending out group texts and updates from Kirkland and outside of Seattle,” Peery said. “And I'll tell you, it's terrifying.”

Hospital staff are doing everything they can to prepare for a rush of patients, and they’ve had to get creative. To deal with a limited supply of disposable protective gear, the hospital is looking into buying rubber outerwear normally used by commercial fishermen. 

And when it comes to masks, one administrator came up with a way to make their own out of the sterile processing material used to wrap surgical tools. Now, one of the hospital’s conference rooms has been converted into a makeshift factory.

“There are probably 10 sewing machines going in there and a huge percentage of our [operating room] staff,” Peery said. “They're literally sewing masks and gowns in anticipation of, at some point, having to switch to other resources for personal protection equipment.”

Amidst all the chaos and stress of a pandemic, hospital workers have to seize upon moments of levity. Peery remembers a time when he walked by that conference room and saw a talented plastic surgeon hard at work with a sewing machine.

“Imagine someone who can put together very complex facial fractures or do these incredibly complex cosmetic surgeries who’s there sewing surgical masks in our conference rooms,” Peery said. “It gives me a chuckle every time I see it.”

Even outside the hospital, Peery is seeing a few reasons to smile. He says people are asking how they can help. A friend who runs a construction company offered to donate some masks. When Peery goes home from the hospital, his family is there waiting for him with some pre-tech fun, like reading a book around the kitchen table.

“It feels like we're almost going to be like 1950 or 1960 again,” Peery said. “We're not so dependent on all these electronics to provide us our entertainment. Hopefully we're just spending time with our closest loved ones and talking and enjoying each other in a much more wholesome way.”

There are plenty of reasons for Peery to keep his head up, but at the end of the day, doctors are still dealing with a dire situation.

“When it comes to the request of a medical provider to say, ‘Hey, I need you to go treat a disease process that could put you in harm’s way and possibly kill you,’ it’s a gut check,” Peery said.

In Aspen, there are similar fears that the worst may be yet to come. 

“We're a little bit on edge at times, wondering if what we see in other parts of the country in the world might be coming our way,” said Dr. Greg Balko, an emergency physician at Aspen Valley Hospital. “Time will tell. But we're funneling that angst into making sure that we can be as prepared as possible.”

Balko says Aspen Valley is lucky to be serving a small town and to have a lot of beds between its Aspen location and clinics in Snowmass and Basalt.

A notable part of their preparations is making sure the hospital has enough personal protective equipment, like masks.

“We've all had to be creative and find ways to try and manage that resource,” Balko said.

Peery said maintaining a stock of masks and aprons is such a high priority because having the right gear is pivotal in keeping staff healthy. He thinks things are going to get a lot worse before they get better, and the hospital just can’t afford to have doctors, nurses or anyone else on the front lines get sick.

“We just have to continue to keep serving the community’s needs from a medical standpoint,” Peery said. “And something like this respiratory illness that is spreading like wildfire could easily put that in peril.”

Catching the disease itself is certainly a risk. But Peery says he’s confident that people at Valley View can hold up mentally. They’re good at managing stress, even in the face of a crisis.  

“I've been doing this long enough, and my colleagues and peers have been doing this long enough, that I think the question of whether we'll stand firm has been answered a long time ago,” Peery said.

While those doctors are hard at work, they stressed the importance of staying at home and away from other people. Peery said social distancing could help to “radically slow the spread of the virus,” but failure to do so could lead to overwhelmed hospitals here in the valley.