As Haywood County residents navigate the new reality of life during a pandemic, the local hospital has some sage advice.

Don’t delay getting healthcare out of fear it will increase COVID-19 exposure — the hospital is perfectly safe.

Dr. David Hegerich, a hospitalist at Haywood Regional Medical Center, said a number of individuals have delayed seeking medical care because of fear of contracting the virus. However, such a delay can be harmful.

“Generally speaking, we’re seeing people initially fearful of COVID who are reluctant to come to the hospital and who are blaming potentially serious problems on other things,” Hegerich said. “For instance, if they have chest pain, they’ll attribute it to heartburn from pizza and are not coming in like they normally had done.”

Hegerich spoke of a colleague who said one patient was convinced he had COVID and was trying to protect neighbors, so didn’t come in. The condition was actually something else that could have been life-threatening. Fortunately the individual did get needed medical care in time.

Chris Fensterle, the interim chief executive officer at Haywood Regional Medical Center, said Haywood Regional isn’t alone in seeing trends related to delayed care.

COVID-like symptoms can be indicative of other conditions, as well, including heart conditions, pulmonary embolisms or strokes, he said.

“Individuals who didn’t seek medical care because they thought they had COVID need to understand delaying care could be equally as dangerous to their health,” Fensterle said.

Much has been learned about how to respond to COVID-19, and that knowledge is incorporated not only at the hospital, but at the medical offices and urgent care facilities across the county operated by the Duke LifePoint system, Fensterle said.

“Now that we know where COVID fits, we have stockpiled PPE and our processes are fine-tuned,” Fensterle said. “COVID has been around for a couple of months now. We’re better at treating it and preventing spread. I hope the community feels comfortable coming here and knows that we can keep them safe from getting COVID. We don’t want people to get sicker than they need to be by delaying medical attention.”

One of the steps taken to make the hospital environment safer involved converting more rooms into a negative pressure area. That involves venting air within a room directly outdoors, Fensterle said. It is a practice that has long been acknowledged as an effective way to control infectious and airborne diseases.

“We had rooms set up with dedicated negative pressure but have added even more rooms to draw air out of building so that it is not going into common area or space,” he said.

Many of the practices used on the hospital floor are unchanged as infection control has long been a priority at Duke LifePoint hospitals, he said, but common areas are being treated somewhat differently.

“We have fine-tuned cleaning process. We focused more on common areas and clean them as much as we do the direct patient care areas. For instance, the boardroom is wiped down 15 times a day as standard practice. When staff became positive, we realized we needed to step up our game in areas where staff might interact,” he said.

Care for COVID


Haywood Regional had between five and six COVID patients in the hospital at once during the spike in the county that started toward the end of July and lasted most of August. Now the caseload is down to a couple of patients being cared for a day, Hegerich said.

“Our volume of patients is reasonable in regard to the size of the community,” Fensterle said.

The hospital has set aside sections in each unit for patients with infection diseases, and an section on the seventh floor as been identified as a care area if there is a patient surge.

At one point, the hospital had 19 employees who tested positive for COVID, Fensterle said, and 18 were able to return to work with little impact.

Hegerich said the hospital has had no indications or suspicions that staff members infected any patients or visitors.

In addition to contact tracing, employees were screened for COVID-like symptoms.

“That was eye-opening experience to look at the medical personnel who felt nothing,” Fensterle said. “Some staff reported zero symptoms but still tested positive for COVID.”

Considering that an infected patient interacted with up to 60 other staff at the hospital, it shows the Haywood Regional experience with COVID did not pose a risk to the community, hospital leaders said.

“It goes back to universal precautions that were all put in place before we saw a surge,” Fensterle said. “That’s part of the reason it not get out of control and died down more quickly than in other areas.”

Hegerich warned that COVID-19 is likely to be around for some time, and that society will have to learn how to live with it.

“Even once we get a vaccine, we don’t know if it will control transmission. This will be something we will handle like MRSA and C-diff,” Hegerich said.

Meanwhile, residents need to seek qualified medical advice for their healthcare needs.

“Don’t make assumptions or guesses,”Fensterle said. “People need good advice and Dr. Google is not an official doctor.”

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