Tomball-area hospitals talk state of health care during pandemic

Hospital leaders around northwest Houston met with the Greater Tomball Area Chamber of Commerce Friday to discuss how they have been going through the coronavirus pandemic.

Robert Marmerstein, HCA Houston Healthcare Tomball CEO, has only been in charge since July, but said the hospital has seen a decrease in employee turnover and an increase in employee engagement, the inverse of what has been happening in many other fields.

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“Rather than laying off those folks, we’ve been able to relocate all of them,” Marmerstein said about employees working during the pandemic. “For those who there wasn’t work to do, we still paid them 70 percent of their normal hours.”

This pay amounts to around $900,000 at the Tomball hospital and tens of millions of dollars across the entire network, he said, which was paid for by senior leaders at the corporate division all taking pay cuts.

Since the pandemic began, Marmerstein said they’ve treated around 750 COVID-19 patients and admitted about 650 of them.

“COVID is a real thing and it’s interesting to see how it’s been politicized, and, in some ways, your political affiliation can influence your respect and reverence for this disease,” Marmerstein said. “Help us spread the message that hand hygiene matters, wearing masks matters and, while we all hope and pray for a vaccine, none of us have seen any evidence it is coming soon.”

In-patient admissions have been continually declining, he said, and the community may have hit the bottom of the COVID wave until a vaccine is made available.

“If we just do our part to be thoughtful and mitigate our risks, that’s what keeps our community and society safe,” he said.

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Anna Marie Dickey, the ER director at HCA Houston Healthcare Tomball, said any symptomatic patients that come to the emergency department are placed in a separate area from other visitors. They also have a universal masking policy in place for all employees and visitors.

Dickey said they also have a much higher number of negative pressure rooms than in typical emergency departments, about 10 of them, which are specialized isolation rooms used to treat patients with COVID-19 symptoms.

“Any reason you have to come to our emergency department to seek care and services, we’re a very safe place to be and we have very good measures in place,” Dickey said.

Keith Barber, CEO of Houston Methodist Willowbrook Hospital, said their hospital was the busiest in their hospital system and will serve about 80,000 people in their four emergency rooms, two inside the hospital and two satellite emergency rooms in the community.

“When COVID first hit, our ER team came to us and said we have to be extremely innovative,” Barber said.

To be innovative, Barber said they put together a bifurcated tent to provide a place for patients to safely walk in and be assessed for COVID-19.

“Some need to be assessed and discharged on an outpatient basis, so some patients don’t even walk into the hospital,” Barber said. “It gives more room for those who need inpatient care.”

Mario Garner, president of CHI St. Luke’s Hospital at The Vintage, said the past few months have set a good trajectory for their hospital and how they will operate under the current conditions.

“Epidemic and pandemic preparedness is something our staff and physicians have trained on for decades,” Garner said. “We have a pandemic and surge capacity policy and we are continually reviewing this policy with our emergency preparedness coordinator so we can adjust based on specific nuance.”

In anticipation of surges in the past, Garner said they have special locations where patients can be placed safely along with negative pressure rooms.

Patients and staff are required to wear masks and they are actively screened at the entrance to the hospital every day, Garner said.

“We want to ensure that hospitals are safe places to go,” Garner said. “We have enhanced our cleaning protocols and mandate that people socially distance inside the facility.”

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