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Rolla Hospital Readies For Coronavirus Cases

The drive-thru triage area at Phelps Health Medical Center in Rolla is part of the hospital's preperation to handle increased patients becaue of coronavirus. 04-02-20
Jonathan Ahl | St. Louis Public Radio
The drive-thru triage area at Phelps Health Medical Center in Rolla is part of the hospital's preperation to handle increased patients becaue of coronavirus.

ROLLA — So far, there have not been any confirmed cases of coronavirus in Phelps County, but the hospital in Rolla is using the delay to make sure it's ready.

Phelps Health Medical Center is the largest hospital for more than 50 miles in every direction. And while COVID-19 cases are few in that region, they are preparing for its arrival in big numbers.

Phelps Health started expanding its capacity more than two weeks ago, with the creation of a triage center in a parking lot adjacent to the hospital. It’s made up of tents, portable buildings and a covered carport where patients can be assessed in their cars.

"We started early to make sure everything was running as smoothly as we possibly can out of a parking lot,” said Ryan McKee, director of the emergency department at Phelps Health. “When the time comes, or if the time comes when it gets really busy, we can have our processes down way ahead of time.”

The triage area will help reduce crowds at the emergency room and help protect staff and other patients when people with coronavirus start seeking medical care at Phelps.

McKee said the hospital has learned a lot and refined its procedures at the triage center in this ramp-up time. Many other hospitals, especially those in urban areas, didn’t start setting up remote triage areas until after coronavirus patients started arriving.

McKee said the hospital is also adding beds and specialized rooms that can be used to treat COVID-19 patients. He said the goal is to maximize use of the hospital’s resources instead of trying to project a certain number of cases that might come to the region.

“There’s no specific number. It’s like, everybody just has a guess on what may come out of this, but you want to be prepared for any possibilities,” McKee said. “It seems like as soon as you make a plan, the next day, the CDC or someone comes out with something a little bit different. So we’ve been able to change on the fly and really make a lot of positive changes in our ER.”

The hospital administration is also working with other, smaller hospitals in the region, but they have not yet developed any public plans on how they may share resources or coordinate efforts.

“We are not in crisis, but we are certainly not running business as usual,” said Phelps Health CEO Ed Clayton to the hospital's board of trustees at a March 29 meeting.

As of Thursday afternoon, there have been eight cases of coronavirus in Pulaski County, two in Maries County, and one in Crawford County, according to the Missouri Department of Health. There have been none in Phelps, Texas or Dent counties, and no deaths related to COVID-19 in the Rolla region.

But Phelps Health is still planning on it coming.

“I am going to tell you it is in Phelps County, it is in Rolla, and it is much more widespread than the confirmed cases suggest,” Clayton said.

Follow Jonathan on Twitter: @JonathanAhl

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Jonathan is the Rolla correspondent for St. Louis Public Radio.