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How One Rural Pa. Healthcare Provider Is Coping With COVID-19 As They Receive Moderna Vaccines

Dr. Victor Lahnovych, Medical Director of the Keystone Rural Health Consortia, received a Moderna vaccine Wednesday.
Courtesy of Victor Lahnovych
Dr. Victor Lahnovych, Medical Director of the Keystone Rural Health Consortia, received a Moderna vaccine Wednesday.

The COVID-19 vaccine developed by Moderna was the second vaccine to be cleared by the FDA. Keystone Rural Health Consortia, a community health center with locations in Elk, Cameron, McKean and Centre Counties, received a total of 1,475 doses of the Moderna vaccine on Wednesday.

WPSU’s Min Xian talked with Kristie Bennardi, CEO of the consortia, about dealing with COVID-19 and beginning to vaccinate staff.


Min Xian: Kristie Bennardi, thank you for talking with me.

Kristie Bennardi: You're welcome. Thank you for having me.

Min Xian: The Keystone Rural Health Consortia provides outpatient medical services in seven rural locations, and you also provide COVID-19 testing. How has the pandemic affected your work as a small rural health care provider, especially in recent months, when we have seen a surge in case numbers for the rural parts of Pennsylvania?

Kristie Bennardi: When the pandemic hit, we started preparing very early on and we knew in March and April that it wasn't here yet. We started testing way back then. But we were always -- we always knew that the surge was coming at some point. Once the surge hit, you know, it was really difficult because as a small rural health provider, we are very lean as far as staff goes. We got very busy very fast. I myself am an RN by trade. So we all wear scrubs to work. And we all work, whatever wherever we need to. I've done COVID testing. In fact, I'm coming in tomorrow to give the girls a break and do some testing. I'm going to come in on Saturday. Everybody is just picking up whatever extra duties we need to do. We did hire one extra lab staff to help with this, which has been a godsend. We tried hiring a couple extra nurses. Unfortunately, the ones we hired, were here a week and saw how busy and were a little nervous and people are still very nervous about COVID. So they've just found it wasn't for them. But the staff that I have are very loyal and very committed to putting our patients first. So really, it was just a team effort from the beginning.

Min Xian: Talk to me a little bit about the situation on the ground. How often do you see patients who tested positive for COVID-19 develops severe symptoms? Or I understand that there are occasions where you have to send patients for inpatient care. What have you observed recently?

Kristie Bennardi: You know, in the beginning, we saw very few positive tests. We do the rapid test and we do the send out PCR tests. Within the last month, we've seen that really change very rapidly. And we're seeing a lot more severe cases than we did in the beginning, we have had to send people to the hospital, and we do have some patients that are not doing well. It's -- we've seen it all, we've seen mild symptoms, we've seen no symptoms. Right now, I would say we're probably seeing 20 to 30% of the patients we're testing are positive. One of the things that we want to do is get them tested so that if they do have it and or symptomatic that they're not spreading it anywhere, and we get them into quarantine right away.

That's been a challenge, because we're here till six o'clock some nights, testing 40 to 50 people a day. But we opted to take that route and do whatever we can to help mitigate the spread in the communities. I think all the health hospitals in Pennsylvania a strain and stress, you know, especially in rural areas where they have limited capacity, limited ventilators, etc. I know that you know, there's a lot of life flights going out daily. After Thanksgiving, the hospitals were very much struggling in all rural areas of Pennsylvania. And my fear is after Christmas, it's going to get worse.

Min Xian: What are, if any at all, attitude changes that you have observed? Because like you mentioned earlier in the pandemic, that cases weren't really hitting rural Pennsylvania, and now it's very much here.

Kristie Bennardi: You know, I've seen a little bit of a change, unfortunately, in rural Pennsylvania, unless it affects you personally, a lot of people still don't believe it's real, or if they know somebody that only had mild symptoms. And it's very true, there are people that their only symptom is loss of taste or smell. However, no one knows who that person will be that is affected differently, who ends up very sick, ends up in the hospital, ends up passing away, God forbid. So really, I think I've seen an improvement in the communities where more people are wearing masks. I've talked to quite a few people today, when I've asked them what their holiday plans were, "Oh, nothing. You know, we're laying low. We're just with our immediate family." And that makes me really happy to hear because of Thanksgiving. I wasn't hearing that. So that tells me that people are taking it more seriously.

Min Xian: So both the Moderna and the Pfizer vaccines were developed in record time and with a new technology, which has prompted questions and created some resistance to them. What kind of attitudes among rural communities have you observed?

Kristie Bennardi: You know, I think it's mixed. I haven't heard more one side than the other, which makes me very happy. I was really thinking we would meet a lot of resistance when reaching out to people. I've had so many people even call this morning that they knew we were possibly getting it getting their employees. I've had employees in health care facilities and different congregate care settings call to get signed up for the vaccine. I think there's a more positive look on the vaccines than there was in the beginning. And my son, who is a physician assistant out in Denver, received his last week and had absolutely no side effects. And the side effects they're publishing are very mild. Flu like, if anything, soreness in the injection site, which is very typical of any vaccine that you get. I think that the benefits clearly outweigh the risks in this setting. And I am actually very happy to see how receptive people are towards it right now.

Min Xian: And what was it like for you to get the vaccine and to see your staff get vaccinated today?

Kristie Bennardi: I have not gotten mine yet. I am going to be getting it this afternoon. I just haven't had time. But I am going to. I'm excited. I am excited for my staff. They are excited. It is a giddiness. We've, you know, I don't ever want to take away from the frontline workers that have been in the ICU in the hospitals because they are the true true heroes. But I have to say that, you know, we've all been working 60 hours a week and and taking on four and five additional jobs. So it is almost a relief to everybody to have this in house and be able to get it and to continue doing what we love to do in a safer way.

Min Xian: That's Kristie Bennardi, CEO of the Keystone Rural Health Consortia and a nurse working on the front line. She and her team received their first shipment of the maternal vaccine on Wednesday. Thank you so much for joining us.

Kristie Bennardi: Well, thank you for having me.

Min Xian: I'm Min Xian, WPSU.

Min Xian reported at WPSU from 2016-2022.
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