April 22, 2020

Highlands-Cashiers Hospital CEO Assures Residents Hospital Is Prepared for COVID-19

Highlands-Cashiers Hospital stands as a bulwark against the arrival of the novel coronavirus on the Plateau. In collaboration with their sister hospitals, local municipalities and the health department, Highlands-Cashiers Hospital CEO Tom Neal assures Plateau residents that our hospital is prepared for their health needs during this unprecedented time.

Highlands-Cashiers Hospital CEO Tom Neal

“Even before a national emergency was declared, we had been hardening our plans to assure we were ready to meet the needs of our community,” says Neal. “As the name ‘novel’ implies, this is a new virus and the guidelines have evolved as we learned more about the spread and treatment. The lack of proven treatment and testing along with the limited resources have made this very challenging, and I am very thankful that our state, our local government and the health department have done an excellent job taking the public health steps necessary to assure our safety.”

Like many local businesses, Highlands-Cashiers Hospital has also felt the impact of COVID-19. First, the hospital cancelled elective procedures to assure that access to resources, like personal protective equipment (PPE), ventilators and ICU beds were available. Although PPE scarcity has not been experienced locally, it was a necessary action taken across the country to free up supplies due to the national shortage for hard hit communities, like New York City. Costs for the hospital also increased significantly as they built in infrastructure and trained their staff for a response. “We are very interested in seeing the local economy open,” says Neal, “but we have to be thoughtful and do this in a way that does not negatively impact public safety.”

One of the first steps Highlands-Cashiers Hospital took in preparation for COVID-19 was to increase screening. Everyone coming to the hospital is now screened for risk factors. Universal masking is also being utilized, meaning everyone is wearing a mask when they cannot practice social distancing. If a patient is at risk, they are immediately placed in a private room where testing and treatment can be administered safely.

Neal notes that they have also worked hard to keep staff safe. This includes daily screening of all employees for risk factors with temperature checks prior to starting shifts, universal masking of all employees, patients and visitors, and hospital-provided scrubs for frontline staff in the ED. The hospital has also focused on PPE conservation, assuring that staff will have access to PPE when needed. “We have been closely monitoring the CDC guidance and assuring we only use PPE when indicated,” says Neal. “This has included daily monitoring of PPE usage.”

Visitors to the hospital may also notice the addition of a tent to support an alternative site for the ED. The tent is designed to assist hospital staff with prioritizing patients seeking treatment, what EDs call triage, and in supporting a surge of patients if the need should arise.

The hospital is also utilizing virtual medicine to support our community, allowing patients to see a doctor safely from their home. For more information on the Mission Virtual Clinic  The Virtual Clinic is open daily from 7 am to 7 pm.

Countless hours have gone into planning and keeping hospital staff informed, from daily planning meetings at both the local level and with our Mission Health sister hospitals, to daily staff town halls. “The planning and updates,” says Neal, “have been a strength of our response!”

A benefit of Highlands-Cashiers Hospital’s affiliation with Mission Health and HCA Healthcare is that they have a partner who can provide support. “Our plans are to transfer patients requiring mechanical ventilators or with a diagnosis of COVID-19 to Mission Hospital,” says Neal. “This strategy ensures that we have access to adequate ventilators and ICU beds to support all of our patients’ needs.”

“I would like to express my appreciation to the community for their support,” says Neal. “The outpouring has been overwhelming. Whether it was a meal for our ED team, flowers or a message left in chalk on the sidewalk, each of these gestures have been immeasurable in supporting our team. We are very fortunate for having a healthcare system here that is staffed by such caring and committed professionals. They love this community and it shows with every patient they touch.”

Highlands-Cashiers Hospital is a community hospital serving Macon, Jackson and the surrounding counties. Located on Highway 64 between the towns of Highlands and Cashiers, the hospital offers 24/7 emergency care, acute inpatient care, rehabilitation, as well as long-term care through Eckerd Living Center. To learn more, visit missionhealth.org/highlands-cashiers.