Looking Back on a Year Amid COVID-19

Some are calling it “the longest year,” and that’s not because last February had 29 days. This Tuesday will mark a year since the statewide COVID-19 lockdown began, as our region experienced the first hint of how the pandemic would sweep the world in an unprecedented way.

At Penn Highlands Healthcare, we appreciate how supportive and cooperative our communities have been this past year as we established precautions and provided community education and ongoing updates for the public about how COVID-19 has affected our area specifically. At Penn Highlands, protecting our staff and patients is, and always has been, our top priority. Here, we reflect on the milestones marking how our healthcare workers and leaders have adapted to the past year’s ever-changing winds, along with memories of how our communities have come out to support us. We say we’re “here for you,” but as this past year has shown, we are all in it together.

  • On March 11, 2020, we held our first media conference, where reporters from nearly a dozen news outlets joined Dr. Shaun Sheehan, our COVID-19 Task Force leader and System Medical Director of Emergency Services, for what would be our last in-person gathering with them. Already the abbreviation for personal protective equipment—“PPE”—had caught on in the nation’s vernacular and the Penn Highlands Supply Chain team worked around the clock to ensure our PPE inventory was good, though fortunately the virus had not hit close to home just yet. However, less than two weeks later on March 24, we were live in a media teleconference when the first active case was reported for Clearfield County. That same week, our hospital community in Huntingdon saw its first case, also. By month’s end, we’d begun to provide daily written updates to our employees across the Penn Highlands system to keep them apprised of changes in guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Pennsylvania Department of Health.
  • By April, we had significantly adjusted our means of patient care, implementing “parking lot waiting rooms” to minimize the risk of exposure for our patients. Then on April 21, the Penn Highlands DuBois West parking lot served another unique purpose, as members of DuBois Light and Life Church held a vigil of dozens of vehicles to pray for our clinical staff. And while much of the public abided by the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s orders to stay at home, many patients discovered a new, more convenient way to address their health needs. That’s because the Penn Highlands MyHealthNow app hosting our telemedicine services saw a massive surge in usage, with what would ultimately become a 5,000% increase in patients seeing their Penn Highlands providers via computer, tablet or cell phone. (How’s that for “here for you”?)
  • By the time we reached May, across the Penn Highlands system we noted an approximately 30-percent drop from our typical pre-pandemic patient volume—and toughest of all, our staff showed unrelenting dedication even as our first inpatient lost their battle with COVID-19. Still our team weathered these storms, and our communities showed their support. Neighbors in our hospital communities placed signs in their yards thanking Penn Highlands workers for their commitment to patient care. Donors from throughout our region surrounded our staff in support, donating a to-date total of $44,000 worth of meals, masks, snacks and other in-kind gifts—and that’s not counting financial donations from our community members, businesses and foundations who wanted to do their part to ensure our organization had all the equipment necessary to keep our facilities safe. WJAC-TV meteorologist Madi Baggett even posted to social media decked out in blue when we hosted a “Wear Blue” day to honor Penn Highlands workers. And while COVID-19 restrictions prevented us from holding our usual celebrations, we celebrated National Hospitals Week as part of our quarterly Rewards & Recognition honors, applauding our employees with a superheroes theme.
  • Fortunately, the summer was relatively COVID-quiet in most Penn Highlands communities, even as business capacities remained limited in the state and education leaders considered whether to open schools for fall. We took an early opportunity to educate our communities about the importance of flu shots in a pandemic, and record numbers of flu vaccines were administered across our health system, including at a drive-thru community clinic at Penn Highlands DuBois the last weekend in September. (To date, our data indicates that flu rates are currently down 96 percent from the prior year, demonstrating that getting the flu vaccine and following precautions like handwashing, social distancing, and mask-wearing are effective means of respiratory virus mitigation.)
  • The flu vaccine campaign occurred just in time, as come October, the pandemic reached our area in a significant way. Earlier in the year, PH DuBois had introduced the region’s first self-isolated COVID-19 unit, which was shuttered a short while later due to low demand (which we considered a good thing). But by November, PH DuBois, PH Clearfield, and PH Huntingdon all had active COVID units open to safely care for the influx of COVID-positive patients who by now had been infected. To help address the growing infection rates, in November we introduced drive-thru rapid testing in most of our hospital communities. (To date, through the end of February 2021, we had administered 49,510 COVID-19 tests in total since the pandemic’s start.) In the later part of 2020, we also created our region’s first post-COVID Recovery Center to support patients who had recovered from COVID-19 but were experiencing longer-term symptoms.
  • It was Sunday, December 13 when the first shipment of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine left Pfizer’s Michigan plant. Penn Highlands was fortunate to be one of the healthcare organizations around the country to receive a quantity from this first shipment on December 17, with a quantity of the first Moderna shipment reaching our three remaining hospitals the following week.
  • By the first week in January, approximately 60 percent of our employees—around 2,300—had received their first dose of Pfizer or Moderna. It seems it all happened just in the nick of time. Gatherings around Thanksgiving and the holiday season made for the worst time yet, as infection rates spiked across the country, including in our service area, in January.
  • Today, we’ve administered just over 45,000 Pfizer and Moderna doses at 72 community clinics and dozens for Penn Highlands staff. We continue to vaccinate all individuals in phase 1A and are accepting names to be waitlisted for phases 1B and 1C. Call 814-503-4735 to inquire.

We’re here for you, and you’ve been here for us too—and that is what community is all about. For more of what’s been happening across Penn Highlands Healthcare, visit www.phhealthcare.org/news. And for details on COVID-19 vaccinations at Penn Highlands, visit www.phhealthcare.org/vaccine.