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St. Charles official defends COVID visitor policy after senior waiting outside sparks debate

(Update: Adding video, comments from Bend resident, St. Charles Emergency Department manager)

The concerns on both sides boil down to health and safety

BEND, Ore (KTVZ) -- A recent Facebook post of an elderly man waiting outside the St. Charles Bend Emergency Department due to COVID-19 visitor policies has stirred up some controversy.

The post was about an 85-year-old man with pneumonia who had to wait in the cold and rainy weather Monday, outside the St. Charles Bend Emergency Department, based on their COVID-19 protocols.

It has prompted concern among some in the community about whether the policy properly takes into account the coming winter weather and people's well-being.

The man's granddaughter said she fears that had he come alone in his current condition, he would have wet himself and potentially caught hypothermia. She said fortunately, her mom and daughter in-law put him in the car to wait.

The granddaughter told NewsChannel21 he was not permitted to wait inside because he didn't have results for a COVID-19 test. She claimed the treatment amounts to elder abuse and discrimination.

St. Charles Emergency Department Manager Michelle Brenholdt told NewsChannel 21 Wednesday that the Incident Command Disaster Response Policy has been in place since the beginning of the pandemic, to alleviate the potential for people contracting COVID-19 in the ED. She says the precaution they’re taking is to keep patients safe. 

The concerns on both sides however, boil down to health and safety.

One concerned woman said she called St. Charles Bend for clarification and learned that her 100-year-old father also would have to wait outside because of the protocol.

“Setting a 100-year-old person out in the winter, in Central Oregon, there’s no -- there’s no excuse for that. He could die." Bend resident Deidra Cherzan said.

Brenholdt said they're presently exploring more options to help with the influx of patients they have, to reduce the wait times outside. She explained how the process currently works.

"When a patient arrives at the Emergency Department, they first get screened at the door for COVID symptoms," she said. "If the patient shows symptoms of COVID, they are registered and asked to wait outside. If there are no symptoms of COVID, then those patients follow our normal process of waiting in our waiting room as we get (a room) ready for them."

"If they do have symptoms of COVID, then the nurse and the tech go out to the patient, assess them to make sure they're stable first. If they are really urgently ill, we want them in our Emergency Department without delay. But if there are no isolation rooms available, we ask them to wait in their car."

In the event that patients have to wait in their car, Brenholdt said they're asked to pull up near the Emergency Department, where the staff can check on them. If space in front of the department is full, she said they usually take a phone number to reach them.

In efforts to get people helped faster, Brenholdt said they've implemented rapid testing and are converting available rooms into isolation rooms, in addition to the 14 they already have. However, she said most of the rooms in the ED are typically filled by 10 AM, with the average patient staying for about three hours.

She expects the rapid testing to be a game-changer, since it will more quickly identify who has COVID. Right now, she said, some rooms are filled with people who end up not having COVID, in which case they could have gone to other areas of the department.

But this is not the first winter with the protocol in place, and some people in the community wonder why the protocol has become an issue now.

Brenholdt pointed out the last winter was different, because there were a lot of people who were afraid to come into the Emergency Department, causing their patient volume to fall by nearly 50%. That allowed people to receive help much faster.

As a resolution for the growing demand, some community members have suggested the idea of a heated outdoor tent as a helpful measure.

Brenholdt said they do use a heated tent, but they can't crowd everybody under it, because it increases the risk of exposure to COVID, since it's shared air space.

She admitted that finding a quick solution is a challenge, but encouraged people who want to go to the Emergency Department for a COVID test to instead go to an urgent care, family doctor, or use the rapid drive-thru test site.

"There will be more rooms available for sicker patients," Brenholdt said.

In an email response earlier this week to NewsChannel 21, a St. Charles spokeswoman outlined the precautionary measures the hospital takes to prioritize health for all patients:

  • Patients who are experiencing a life-threatening medical emergency requiring immediate treatment will be brought in and evaluated right away.
  • All patients are initially screened inside the ED. Those patients who have respiratory symptoms are asked to wait outside and undergo a rapid COVID test, with results in 10-15 minutes. If a patient’s COVID test is negative, they are brought inside to our ED waiting area. If their test is positive, we admit them to an isolation room, if one is available. If an isolation room is not available, the patient has the option of waiting outside in their car until they can be evaluated.
  • We acknowledge that waiting outside for any period of time is not ideal, but we must take every precaution to keep our patients safe. We are working on identifying additional indoor areas where COVID-positive patients can be isolated.
Article Topic Follows: Coronavirus
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Bola Gbadebo

Bola Gbadebo is a multimedia journalist for NewsChannel 21. Learn more about Bola here.


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