COVID-19 infection rates and hospitalizations in Arkansas continue to rise. To address the anticipated capacity shortage, Mercy Health is expanding its virtual health program to offer patient care at home in Northwest Arkansas and the Fort Smith region.
Mercy COVID Care @ Home will offer remote, in-home care for patients with mild symptoms who may need low-flow rates of oxygen, by providing virtual home monitoring in real-time. It is 24-hour care that will include measurement of oxygen saturations by pulse oximetry, adjusting oxygen flow as necessary, along with additional evaluations and appropriate interventions.
“We have learned that not all patients who were admitted at the onset of COVID-19 need to be hospitalized,” said Dr. Carter Fenton, medical director of Mercy Virtual vAcute. “By caring for select patients at home, with ongoing monitoring and management, we can reserve the hospital beds for those with more serious disease symptoms.”
Fenton said if the status of any patient changes during monitoring, or symptoms worsen, patients will be evaluated by the Mercy Virtual team and directed to the most appropriate level of care. An emergency medicine physician will help determine the type of care the patient needs – from an in-home visit, evaluation in one of the outpatient clinics or a hospital.
“Providing the opportunity for care in different settings is extremely important – for both the patients as well as our medical teams,” Fenton said. “The challenging part for patients is determining their needs and our Mercy Virtual providers will help them through that process.”
This week in Northwest Arkansas, the three hospital systems reported 107 patients hospitalized in COVID units, and while that is not a record high, Dr. Stephen Goss, director of medicine for Mercy Northwest, said there was a recent surge in COVID-19 hospitalizations after the fall. He said Mercy Hospital in Rogers has 56 COVID-19 beds and that includes ICU for these patients. At peak, he said 46 of those beds were in use. On Tuesday (Dec. 2) that number is down to 40.
Goss said the extension of virtual care for COVID-19 patients is an effective way for the health provider to keep staff and caregivers where they are needed most. He said the program also would allow some COVID patients to go home sooner with continued monitoring and oxygen.
He said the virtual care program Mercy has been using for the past few years with chronically ill patients suffering from congestive heart failure and other pulmonary conditions like emphysema brought hospital admissions down 50%. Goss said the extension to treat and monitor COVID patients is a good use of resources and he assures families the monitoring is 24-7 and health providers are there to support the entire family when a COVID patient is treated at home.
“We have worked on the front-end and back-end of this program extension. We want patients to know this is a good solution for those cases where a little intervention is still needed. It is not for the critically ill. Should a patient at-home see their condition deteriorate, Mercy would step in and ensure the patient is sent to the proper care center for examination and further treatment,” Goss told Talk Business & Politics.
He said the program expansion is timely because non-COVID hospital admissions are also rising. Goss said the virtual care program does not create more bed capacity in non-COVID units, but it does free up space in the COVID units. Goss said the recent hospital expansion in Rogers has been crucial to the provider’s ability to handle the uptick in cases and keep the COVID and non-COVID units separate. Goss said having nearly two floors of shelved space also gives the hospital options to treat some patients in a ward setting, should the cases outpace bed capacity. He’s hopeful that will not be necessary. When asked about changes in treatment protocols, Goss said there has been a lot learned since the first cases presented in early March.
He said physicians now have good treatment protocols in place and care has improved for COVID cases. He said the use of steroids, Remdesivir, and plasma and antibody infusions show promise in treating COVID as the nation continues to wait on a vaccine.
“There is not one cure-all, but we are learning more each month. This at-home COVID care from Mercy is being offered across all markets and it is made possible because of the Virtual’s care team based in St. Louis which has been caring for chronically ill patients since 2015 with the goal of keeping patients comfortable at home and out of the hospital,” Goss said.