COOPERSTOWN — Bassett Healthcare Network officials announced Tuesday are encouraging patients to return to health care facilities as the network begins to resume regular services.
“The bottom line is we are ready. We are more than ready. We are already ramping up,” said Dr. William Streck, president and CEO of Bassett Healthcare Network. “April was a month in which there was a dramatic decrease in all aspects of institutional and organizational health care in upstate New York.”
Facilities throughout Bassett’s eight-county network are prepared to be fully operational within eight to 10 weeks, Streck said.
“The message I’m hearing from all of our clinical staff is that they’re ready to take care of all patients,” said Dr. Steven Henegan, Bassett’s chief clinical officer. “They’re seeing children that are not getting their vaccinations, they’re seeing adults that are not managing their illnesses well enough. We’re seeing heart disease advance faster than we’d like it to. We have designed ways of taking care of you that are safe. We’d like to care for our community as we’ve done in the past.”
“We know that there is deferred and delayed medical care across the region — this is important care,” said Dr. William LeCates, president of Bassett Medical Center. “I expect we could be very busy, and we should be very busy. This is important care and we need to meet the needs of people in our community.”
Bassett will continue certain policies and procedures adopted amid the coronavirus pandemic, including testing patients coming in for non-COVID procedures and requiring patients and staff to wear masks. Virtual and tele-visits will continue to be an option, Streck said, but patients will be encouraged to resume in-person visits.
“We are reintroducing all of our services in a slightly changed, new environment, but one that can offer all these services with a sense of reassurance,” Streck said.
“Waiting rooms should look very different. Waiting rooms should look empty,” LeCates said. “Lines shouldn’t exist, just like in all areas of our community as businesses are practicing restarting, we have to be careful with social distancing.”
The COVID-19 hotline will remain operational, as will testing tents outside Bassett facilities, Streck said. To date, Bassett has accommodated 12,000 phone calls, 5,000 evaluations and 30,000 video visits.
Streck said he believes the first phase of the virus is “behind us,” citing the lack of new hospital admissions or positive coronavirus test results in Otsego County in more than a week.
“For now, we’re in a situation where we know the COVID virus exists within the region, and we know that the consequences of this pandemic are still very much present,” Streck said. “We’re aware that it’s very much part of our lives because everyone’s still fearful — everyone still has anxieties about this.”
Streck said Bassett officials estimated the pandemic caused a 40 to 50% decline in visits and admissions, leaving the network 15% behind its predicted level of services, even amid the pandemic.
“That’s tens of millions of dollars that are of consequence to our organization,” he said. “Some of that is being helped by the CARES Act and other initiatives of the federal government, but it will probably be three or four months before we can get a full accounting of the consequences here.”
As the region enters the first phases of reopening within the coming weeks, Streck said Bassett will be better prepared in the event of another spike in infections.
“Unlike our early experience, which caught us a little off-guard, we have more testing available,” he said. “If we do find somebody that’s symptomatic, we now have targeted approaches to address anybody that’s had contact with them to test and see how widespread it is. These are things that the health community and the world were not quite ready for the first time.”
Henegan said Bassett plans to continue conducting coronavirus tests throughout the next year. “As the community opens up, we want to make sure we are in surveillance mode and we can identify any new pockets that come up and intervene, and it’s very important that people, when they start getting symptoms, to get tested.”
Antibody testing is now available, Henegan said, but warned that the test is “not a determination of if someone is actively infected.”
“The antibody testing is not what’s going to keep people well,” he said. “People are curious, they want to know, but again, the swab testing will tell us if you’re symptomatic.”
“This is a great test to help us understand how this has spread, but I would not want people to think that if their test is positive, that makes them immune from reinfection,” said Dr. Charles Hyman, Bassett’s senior attending physician in infectious diseases.
Streck contended that Bassett has been successful in combating the spread of the virus, but credited the vigilance of local residents and communities in maintaining a relatively low infection rate.
“We did get it right for our region, but there is clearly a difference in terms of the cities and the rural regions and in terms of the communities that did adopt social distancing and hand washing and wearing masks,” he said. “What we did for our region was effective. There’s evidence that we mitigated some of the potential problems and we did serve patients, but what the communities did is important. Collectively, what we did was correct.”
“Every community has a ‘getting it right’ for that community,” Streck continued. “For us, we have gotten it right thus far. Having gotten whatever our version of ‘right’ is, let’s celebrate the opportunity to get back to normal.”
Sarah Eames, staff writer, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 607-441-7213. Follow her @DS_SarahE on Twitter.