EAMC Chief of Staff talks COVID at Business Over Breakfast

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Photo by Will Fairless / Associate Editor

By Will Fairless
Associate Editor

The Opelika Chamber of Commerce hosted its annual Business Over Breakfast meeting last Tuesday morning at Saugahatchee Country Club. The meeting’s presenting sponsor was Glenn Smith Chevrolet Buick-GMC.

Chamber President  Ali Rauch introduced the meeting’s guest speaker, EAMC Chief of Staff Dr. Michael Roberts. “With COVID still in our midst, we thought it would be helpful to get an update,” Rauch said. “We are, of course, very grateful and blessed to have EAMC here in our community, and we are honored to have with us today EAMC Chief of Staff Dr. Michael Roberts.”

Roberts showed a graph of EAMC hospitalizations from COVID-19 and ventilator usage for patients hospitalized for COVID-19. The graph showed that EAMC’s first hospitalization for COVID-19 was on March 16. Roberts said that the hospital started planning far in advance.

“Two months before our first patient, we were meeting about COVID-19,” he said. “We were starting to hear what was going on in China and it was starting to spread to the rest of the world… We started working on our reserves of personal protective equipment, we started working on our clinical plans. When we first saw the [first] patient, we weren’t unprepared.”

He then cited a Mike Tyson quote (“Everybody has a plan until you get punched in the mouth”) in explaining that although EAMC was prepared, it was not prepared for the number of hospitalizations it has seen since March, three times peaking at over 50 patients hospitalized for COVID-19.

“As we were planning before it happened, we were saying, ‘What if we get one patient? What if we get two patients? Ok, well what if we have five patients,’” Roberts said. “And it just blew up way faster than you can increase staff or shift services without there being a little bit of chaos. It was extremely challenging for us to manage these patients.”

Roberts thanked the community for how it responded to the pandemic. He noted that people were praying on the top deck of the parking garage, donating money to pay for meals in the hospital and most importantly, he said, practicing strategies to limit transmission. “From our perspective, this is a great way to support us, and it has been all along,” he said.

He said that the biggest challenges for the hospital were COIVD patients demanding high levels of attention, unproven therapeutics being the best or only options for treatment, a high threat of illness to the staff and resultant staffing shortages.

“There are some more therapeutic options coming,” Roberts said. “We have access to a monoclonal antibody now; we have begun those infusions — and this is outpatient. The benefit of the monoclonal antibodies is to keep people out of the hospital.”

He added that there are a lot of treatments and studies coming out, and that in six months the medical community should know a lot better what works and what doesn’t. Roberts said that EAMC found some things that didn’t work and that the hospital doesn’t use those therapies anymore.

On the vaccine, which EAMC has since received some quantity of, Roberts said, “We’re trying to work on the strategy for how to roll the vaccines out initially; they’re going to be for healthcare workers and nursing home residents…. From the information that we have so far, it appears to be safe. But there is always an unknown. I think that this is our way out.”

Roberts also gave a brief history of EAMC and some good news from EAMC. EAMC began as Lee County Hospital in 1952, which was constructed in 18 months for $900,000. The original hospital had 81 beds, 71 employees and 13 physicians. In 1959, the hospital’s operational cost was $1,237. After four expansions and a name change, EAMC has 3,500 employees, 183 physicians and costs $1 million a day to operate.

There have been 21 new physicians hired at EAMC in 2020, and the hospital is expanding its stroke care and valve programs. It is also making renovations to its newborn intensive care unit. The Level III NICU is expected to open in the summer of 2021. The new unit would allow the hospital to keep sicker babies at EAMC with their families.

The Spencer Cancer Center opened in 2019 and now employs three medical oncologists and two radiation oncologists. Roberts said that Pinnacle Cardiovascular Associates brought much of EAMC’s cardiovascular services together under one roof.

There are plans for an “Auburn Medical Pavilion” that will include an emergency department, ambulatory surgery center and radiology services. Construction is scheduled to be complete by March 2021.

The small business of the quarter Taziki’s Mediterranean Cafe (2119 Interstate Dr.). 

For more information about the Opelika Chamber of Commerce and for updates on the Business Over Breakfast meetings, visit the chamber’s website (www.opelikachamber.com).

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