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Wake Forest Baptist, whose Lexington hospital is seen here, is among the major North Carolina hospital chains that have announced changes to surgery policies in order to prepare for a possible surge in coronavirus patients. Photo courtesy of Wake Forest Baptist

Many of North Carolina’s largest hospital systems announced Wednesday, March 18, they will reschedule or reprioritize nonemergency and noncritical surgeries, procedures and appointments to prepare for the possibility of a surge in patients affected by COVID-19.

Emergency and other “essential services” will not be affected, according to a news release from Duke Health, UNC Health and WakeMed. The shift will allow the three health systems to “conserve precious clinical resources” and protect patients and clinical staff.

Separately, Atrium Health, Novant Health and Wake Forest Baptist Health announced a similar reshuffling of all similar surgeries and appointments effective March 18.

Emergency and essential services for those systems also will remain uninterrupted. Patients will be notified if their surgeries or appointments will be affected. Patients with questions should reach out to their health care providers.

While a surge of COVID-19 patients has not yet been felt in North Carolina, hospitals in Italy have overflowed with patients. Doctors there have received guidance to only treat patients “deemed worthy of intensive care.”

The state of North Carolina has not yet mandated that hospitals cancel or postpone services to prepare for COVID-19 patients, said Dr. Elizabeth Tilson, state health director and chief medical officer for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.

North Carolina identified its first case of COVID-19 more than two weeks ago, on Tuesday, March 3. Since then, 63 residents have tested positive. To date, officials have said there has been no evidence of community spread. [See the daily update from Carolina Public Press to stay up-to-date as numbers may change.]

“We are acting as if community spread is already here, even though it isn’t, so we can slow the spread of the virus as soon as possible,” said NCDHHS Secretary Mandy Cohen said late last week.

One reason for the halt of elective and other nonessential surgeries is to preserve a supply of PPE, or personal protective equipment, for nurses, doctors, first responders and others on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic response.

In Washington state, where COVID-19 cases are surging, the Department of Health has been receiving respirators, gloves, gowns, protective eye shields and other protective equipment from the nation’s Strategic National Stockpile.

The Duke, UNC and WakeMed systems said they are following guidelines set out by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization.

“The greatest concern among all three organizations is to ensure that we continue to provide needed care to our patients while also meeting the uncertain demands on our systems associated with COVID-19,” Duke Health, UNC Health and WakeMed said in their release.

It is currently unknown whether other systems, such as Mission Health, have made similar plans.

Whether North Carolina, like Washington state, will see a surge in acute cases due to COVID-19 is hard to say.

Dr. Amir Barzin, with the Respiratory Diagnostic Center at UNC Health in Chapel Hill, said it’s fortunate the state has so far not seen a large uptick in positive cases – but that can only happen if people avoid close contact with each other and observe proper hand-washing techniques.

“We have an opportunity to get ahead of this and limit the surge,” Barzin said March 18. “I think that’s the big advantage we have.”


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Carolina Public Press is transforming from a regionally focused nonprofit news organization to the go-to independent, in-depth and investigative news arm for North Carolina. You are critical to this transformation — and the future of investigative and public interest reporting for all North Carolinians.

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Kate Martin

Kate Martin is lead investigative reporter for Carolina Public Press. Email her at kmartin@carolinapublicpress.org.

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