On this the second day in a row, North Carolina’s set an all-time high in COVID-19 hospitalizations (708 coronavirus patients in hospitals statewide), I’m checking back in with Cone Health CEO Terry Akin. He oversees multiple hospitals and other facilities in Guilford and five surrounding counties. When I spoke with him in early-April, his big message was essentially three words: stay at home. Below is the text of our latest virtual conversation (edited for brevity).
“What is the dominant thought/slash concern on your mind as we head into week number two of the Phase 2 reopening here in North Carolina?”
Terry Akin/CEO-Cone Health
“I would start first with a sense of gratitude. It’s significantly different in that we feel today we have at least a marginally-manageable situation. We canceled the ACC Tournament. We canceled or postponed the High Point Furniture Market. We delayed the opening of the Tanger Center. Our stay-at-home efforts and our social distancing have really had a dramatic impact on our reducing the spread of the infection and limiting the potential overwhelming of our hospitals.”
“But that doesn’t mean you don’t have a big concern right now.”
“That’s right. And that’s the paradox here. And that’s the challenging part. One of the things we’ve known from the very beginning, Neill, is that when we are staying at home and social distancing and it begins to work, it’s going to appear that we didn’t need to do them in the first place. What we’re trying to do is just put in the balance. In other words, we know people need to return to work. We know businesses are coming back online. Our appeal is that we need people to be smart about this.”
“When are your folks telling you we will reach our peak here in the Piedmont Triad?”
“Our modeling has told us for probably about a month now, that sometime in late May/early June.”
“Is there a particular number as a hospital administrator that you pay the most attention to? I would assume it’s hospitalizations.”
“I think the two most important things that we track and pay attention to as we’re looking at the spread of this illness: our numbers of hospitalizations and, sadly, numbers of fatalities. And just as a point of reference, about two weeks ago we were hovering around 25 patients at our hospital that were COVID-19-infected. Today, we’re in the range of about 60 patients.”
“In Alamance County this past Saturday night, thousands gathered for a race at the ACE Speedway. Cone Health is a major health care provider in Alamance County. I mean, the Alamance Regional Medical Center is a Cone Health facility. What was your reaction when you saw that video and you read about what happened there Saturday night?”
“Obviously I was worried about those folks. I mean, believe me, I get it. I understand that people, they seem ready to go out and have a good time. And you know, who among us isn’t? I just wish they would have done it wearing masks and maintaining some semblance of social distancing. That’s what I would say about that.”
“What is the big message you want to send out to this community, my viewers, about the situation you as a health care administrator are facing right now. What do you want to tell?
“We are not past anything. We’re not through anything. Be smart. Be wise. Wear masks. And when you need to go out and about whether that’s at work or visiting businesses, maintain social distancing of at least six feet and when you don’t have to go out, stay home.”
Akin also told me Cone Health has sufficient numbers of PPE and ventilators.
In terms of hospital capacity for COVID-19 patients: Cone Health can only use hospital beds that have negative pressure capabilities that keep the virus from escaping the room and infecting others. 60 percent of its ICU beds that have those capabilities are available right now. In terms of the non-ICU beds that have those capabilities, just 16-percent are available. Cone can certainly make more beds COVID-ready, and Akin says it’s fortunate it has the recently-vacated Women’s Hospital to help in that regard. But even that’s no guarantee the system can’t get overwhelmed by a sudden major spike in cases — which is why we all need to stay smart.