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Sentara Albemarle Medical Center is seen Thursday afternoon. Sentara Albemarle critical care physicians say preparation has been key to the hospital’s treatment of COVID-19 patients so far.

Sentara Albemarle Medical Center is currently treating COVID-19 patients in its intensive care unit and is well prepared to care for even larger numbers of coronavirus patients, two critical care physicians said this week.

The Elizabeth City-based hospital isn’t releasing the exact number of COVID-19 patients receiving treatment in its ICU. But Dr. Thersea Hartsell said information gathered from contacts in COVID-19 hotspots in the U.S. and overseas has allowed the hospital to better care for patients who’ve been admitted to the hospital with the virus.

“Those patients that we have so far that are COVID-positive but in the ICU have not been as severe as a lot as what has been described (to us),” Hartsell said in an interview on Wednesday. “The fact that we have been prepared for that and have been proactive may have helped keep that from happening.”

Hartsell also said the hospital staff’s preparation “makes us feel a lot better as we get ready for what I think is going to be a wave of cases.” She added, however, that the wave “may be slower because we are less urban dense.”

Dr. Daniel Mulcrone agreed that information received from other health care providers has been invaluable in Sentara Albemarle’s preparation for an expected surge in cases. Last week, the hospital announced it had identified space in the hospital for an additional 26 ICU beds.

“We have learned an awful lot as time has passed to get ready what we need to get ready,” Mulcrone said. “We are learning to be creative where we need to be creative to make sure we maintain the high level of care we deliver. I feel everyone here has done a marvelous job of that.’’

Hartsell and Mulcrone both said that for the last month the hospital has been making needed preparations and stockpiling needed equipment to deal with an expected increase in patients as the virus spreads.

“We have been projecting out exactly what we will need in terms of what we call an ICU surge,” Hartsell said. “That is everything from ventilators, which is a hot topic item, down to cords for different monitoring devices. We have put in the appropriate requisitions for stockpiling and it looks like we are literally right on track to at least have what we can do physically right here. I have never not had anything I have needed.”

Karen Ward, a registered respiratory therapist at Sentara Albemarle, said the weeks of preparation have been “stressful for everyone” at the hospital.

“The lag time in local infection rates has helped us to prepare and be able to have extra supplies and equipment ordered, and have on hand,” Ward said.

Mulcrone said hospital staff have also gone through extensive cross-training to help provide additional ICU staff if needed.

“Colleagues in the hospital who normally fill other roles are extending themselves in offering their services and shifting their priorities to help the current patient population that is more in need,” Mulcrone said. “Our colleagues are pitching in where they can to meet our goal of taking care of the patients as we normally would but in a larger scale.’’

Elizabeth Cornwell is a registered nurse and the Emergency Department Team coordinator at Sentara Albemarle. She said the hospital not only has been preparing to care for an expected surge of COVID patients; it’s also been providing staff with emotional support.

“As leaders, we want to provide support as well as preparation at this time,” Cornwell said. “We are in this together and it’s important to check in with one another to be sure our care team is sustained and we do not ignore anxieties. The uncertainty of how wide this pandemic will spread is felt by health care teams as well. Preparation time is not only to gather necessary supplies to provide health care for our community but also to increase our unity as a team.”

With the additional ICU beds identified, Sentara Albemarle will have a 36 total ICU beds available, all of which will be equipped with ventilators. The hospital’s capacity, including the 36 ICU beds, is 173 beds, which is up from 110 beds before the COVID-19 crisis as space has also been identified for additional non-ICU beds.

“We just expanded into the additional suite of (ICU) rooms (Tuesday),” Hartsell said. “The others are rolling out and the reason they are not ready is that they need some retrofitting which is ongoing. We are getting there.”