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Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center. Photo: Nate Merkel.

First, the good news. As of Tuesday afternoon, March 24, the Pennsylvania Department of Health reported only four confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Dauphin County and only three in Lebanon County.

But now the bad news. Based on how rapidly the disease is spreading, the lengthy time between exposure and the first symptoms, and the general lack of testing, it’s likely that the number of Sun Country cases will surge in the weeks ahead.

Standing on guard, ready to treat patients, is the Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center.

Late last week, the Med Center received its first COVID 19 patient, an adult who is being treated in isolation.

The Med Center’s staff has extensive training in treating infectious diseases such as COVID-19. And Med Center employees have been preparing for weeks for a large influx of COVID-19 patients.

The Big Unknown

But the big unknown is this: How large will this influx be?

“As COVID-19 is new and scientists across the world are still trying to understand it, it’s difficult, if not impossible, to predict hospitalizations or mortality at this point,” said Scott Gilbert of Penn State Health’s communications office.

Hospitals near COVID-19 hot spots are reporting acute shortages of critical supplies as the number of infected people rises daily. As of Monday evening, more than 41,000 cases had been reported in the U.S. — a tenfold increase from just seven days earlier.

“I want America to understand, this week, it’s going to get bad,” U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said.

In some hot spots, hospitals are running out of relatively simple gear such as masks, gloves and gowns, which protect health care workers from infected patients. They are also reporting critical shortages of life-saving ventilators. Hospital officials have expressed alarm that they won’t have enough intensive care unit beds if the number of patients skyrockets in the coming weeks, as it has in Italy.

“Part of our extensive planning for COVID-19 is making arrangements and staging locations should the need for additional spaces for patient care arise. We have prepared a number of steps to handle a surge of patients, if needed,” Gilbert said.

At a press conference Monday, March 23, Secretary of Health Rachel Levine said the state had one million masks on hand and had access to more. Gilbert did not specify how many masks, gowns and ventilators the Med Center has on hand, but he said the Med Center for now has “an adequate supply” of protective gear.

Gilbert added that the staff is being reminded of “best practices set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — for example, only using masks when they are clinically indicated.” The staff is also being reminded of policies on the use and re-use of protective equipment.

“The situation is always changing,” Gilbert said. “While cases are on the increase, so is the other side of the equation — as our supply-chain folks are working tirelessly to find new sources and solutions.”

But it remains unknown whether the Med Center can obtain enough new supplies if it has to compete with other hospitals for scarce resources during a national emergency.

Illnesses and Injuries?

Penn State Health is undertaking additional precautionary measures. These include restricting visitors, screening approved visitors for COVID-19, stepping up cleaning practices, implementing quarantines for employees returning from travel, reminding employees to stay at home if they have respiratory symptoms or a fever, and enhancing social distancing at all of its facilities.

Even if there is a massive surge of COVID-19 patients, the Med Center will remain open for patients with other illnesses and injuries. But the Med Center announced last week that it has suspended all nonessential surgeries.

Symptoms of this respiratory disease include a fever, coughing and shortness of breath. But Nebraska Methodist

Hospital pathologist Diana Nevins emphasized that five days to two weeks can elapse between exposure and the first noticeable symptoms.

“Everything is delayed with this virus,” said Nevins, who earned her medical degree at Penn State Hershey.

Gilbert stresses that anyone experiencing COVID-19 symptoms who may have been exposed to the disease should immediately contact the Pennsylvania Department of Health at 877-724-3258 or their primary care physician by phone to determine the appropriate next steps.

He adds that people can also minimize their risk of exposure and exposing other people by seeing a board-certified doctor for free COVID-19 screening through the Penn State Health OnDemand app. The Med Center has set up a drive-through testing site on its main Hershey campus.

“Those tests are also free,” Gilbert said.

To minimize the risk of contracting and spreading this potentially fatal disease, wash your hands frequently for at least 20 seconds, keep your hands away from your face, minimize your close contact with other people (especially if they appear sick), don’t shake hands, and cough and sneeze into a tissue or your elbow.

The mortality rate from COVID-19 is generally around 1 percent, but that number increases for seniors and for patients with certain pre-existing conditions.

“Be concerned, but don’t panic,” was Nevins’ advice.

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