As tens of thousands of Penn State students return to the University Park campus for fall semester, Mount Nittany Health says the community should feel comfortable in its capacity to treat a potential surge of COVID-19 cases.
Mount Nittany Health’s Chief Medical Officer Dr. Nirmal Joshi said the State College community and the surrounding areas the hospital serves have helped prevent a large number of COVID-19 cases so far. He said that’s given the hospital the chance to improve its response capability in the months since the pandemic began.
“We clearly got that opportunity to prepare and prepare and prepare even better,” Joshi said. “That allowed us to kind of have adequate supplies of personal protective equipment. It allowed us to put protocols in place to appropriately save those PPEs. It also allowed us to put protocols in place to protect our hospital employees, to protect our doctors, other providers and so on.”
There has been concern among residents that a spike in cases because of the return of university students is inevitable, as that scenario has played out in colleges and universities across the country in the past weeks.
Penn State said its plan to conduct testing, monitoring and mitigation will keep on-campus learning possible and the community safe. The university said one of its goals in planning is to make sure local hospitals around campuses are not overwhelmed.
In a July virtual town hall, Penn State Interim Dean of the College of Medicine, Dr. Kevin Black, said it’s estimated that Mount Nittany can accept one new COVID-19 patient a day on a sustained basis without being overwhelmed.
But he emphasized “that we will not wait to reach that number before mitigation steps are initiated.”
Joshi said one new patient a day may seem low, but it was calculated based on several factors, including regional and national data on how long COVID-19 hospitalizations may last.
“You've probably heard, with many of those stories, that they've been in the hospital 30 days, 45 days, 60 days, sometimes 70, 80 days in the hospital, right? And so during planning, you have to assume or plan for the worst, but hope for the best. So you have to plan for the fact that the length of stay might be longer,” Joshi said.
Joshi said more cases doesn’t necessarily mean more hospitalizations.
Mount Nittany Medical Center has 24 ICU beds and ventilators that can care for up to 40 patients. It is also closely monitoring its PPE supplies and staffing levels, which the hospital said were not impacted by recent lay-offs. Joshi said the scenario where all of those critical resources are overwhelmed is unlikely.
Joshi said the hospital is in constant coordination with the university and is going to remain flexible in its operations.
“There are many things about this pandemic that we don't know,” he said. “The one thing that we do know is certain things do work in prevention consistently and very well. One of them is face covering -- the mask -- and I think we absolutely must stress the importance of face coverings, social distancing, and hand hygiene.”
On Friday, Penn State announced pre-arrival testing has yielded 148 positive COVID-19 tests so far from about 17,000 students who’ve submitted them. Around 5,000 more are pending. Penn State said those who test positive must self-isolate for 10 days and be cleared by a health professional before returning to campus.