While it may seem that many organizations in the United States were taken by surprise by the spread of COVID-19, Banner Health has been preparing for this event for months. On Monday, Banner Health’s incident commander, Dr. Marjorie Bessel, provided some information and guidance for the community as it deals with this worldwide pandemic.

“We have been planning and meeting about this for many, many weeks,” said Bessel, Banner’s chief clinical officer. “We have an incident command center that has been set up since the beginning of March in order to respond to the needs of the state of Arizona. We have been working very carefully with the county, and the state department of health in order to make sure we can maintain healthcare operations to take care of those who might need us most in this situation.”

Bessel said that Banner’s Emergency Operations Command Center is set up and is ready to collaborate with other healthcare providers in the state to provide the best care they can if the COVID-19 cases rapidly grown. She said that as part of Banner’s planning, not just for this event, but for any type of event where the healthcare system might become stressed, Banner has contingency plans in place for everything from staffing, to alternative sites of care if the number of patients that need care exceeds the available capacity.

Banner, the largest healthcare services provider in Arizona with more than 50,000 employees, will likely see a great deal of patients in the coming days and weeks, if the COVID-19 pandemic spreads as it has in other parts of the world. During her remarks on Monday, Bessel provided some valuable guidance to the public about what they can do to help slow the spread of this disease, as well as what those who might be infected should do.

Banner itself has implemented new visitor policies for its facilities. They are placing a limit of one visitor per patient. When visitors arrive at the hospital, they will be screened. They will have their temperature checked, and if they have an elevated temperature, they will be turned away. Bessel asks that anyone who is considering visiting a friend of loved one in the hospital, do not come if they don’t feel well. 

The COVID-19 is similar to other respiratory illnesses, like influenza and RSV, but so far it has shown that it is spreads easily. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), symptoms include fever, a dry cough and shortness of breath. According to the Arizona Department of Health Services website, there have been a total of 18 confirmed COVID-19 cases in the state as of noon on Monday, March 16.

Bessel said that so far, the illness has be relatively mild in most of those infected. She said that 80 percent of individuals infected show only mild symptoms and some show no symptoms. For the other 20 percent, many will likely require hospitalization and some of those will become very ill and require ICU and require ventilatory support.

“At this point, as we’ve seen everywhere else in the world, there is no specific treatment for COVID-19 illness,” Bessel said. “It is treatment of ongoing support, and treatment of the symptoms. So we will continue to treat those individuals in a fashion that is similar to how we treat other respiratory illnesses.”

Bessel said if an individual is showing symptoms, it is important that they take precautions in order to limit the spread of the illness. She said that for individuals who are exhibiting symptoms, healthcare professionals are asking them to call ahead of time to see if those symptoms might warrant an assessment and whether that assessment might include testing. She said that the criteria for screening continues to change on a fairly regular basis and healthcare providers will inform the public and do the appropriate adjustment in order that the tests are appropriate for those screening guidelines.

“We have the ability to test in our hospitals and are working closely with the state and the CDC for that, and that’s been in place for some time,” Bessel said. “We don’t have the capabilities to test for individuals who are just curious or just want to be tested.”

For those with more serious symptoms that require an assessment, Bessel said they will be directed to a healthcare facility. Once at the facility, it is important that they take preventative measures.

“One of the most important things that they can do so that they don’t infect one of the healthcare workers is to put a mask on immediately upon entering into those areas,” said Bessel. “By masking themselves, they will reduce the likelihood that they are going to infect one of our healthcare workers and help us make sure that our healthcare workers remain healthy and are able to be at work so that we can take care of them.”

Bessel said that all Banner facilities have masks available for incoming patients and also noted that these facilities have alternative entrances for some patients if it is deemed necessary to have them take added precautionary steps.

Bessel also noted that Banner, along with Maricopa County, state and federal agencies are actively working to provide more access to testing, which could include drive-through testing sites. She said that more testing capabilities are expected in Arizona this week and Banner will provide that information as the situation changes.

The most important messages that Bessel wanted to communicate to the public were the importance of taking steps to slow the spread of the disease and the need to remain calm in the face of this health crisis.

“Panicking is not going to help us,” Bessel said. “We just ask that you follow the evidence-based practices that we know will help us and calmly think about the things you can do and take them very, very seriously.”

The practices that Bessel mentioned that will help slow the spread of the illness include washing your hands; avoid touching your face, eyes and nose; and staying home if you are ill. She also stressed the role that social distancing can play in flattening the curve of cases. Social distancing includes staying home as much as possible, not attending any gatherings of more than 50 people, and avoiding gatherings of more than 10 people if you are over the age of 60 or have medical conditions that put you at a higher risk.

“We know from the epidemiological curve in other countries and in other parts of the U.S., the earlier we take action, the less likely we’re going to see those situations where we have an influx that really stresses the healthcare system as a whole,” Bessel said. “Take early and active steps. Those types of things, done as an entire community, can help the state of Arizona not have a large outbreak.”

Since COVID-19 is a new member of the coronavirus family, experts are just learning about how it spreads and how it behaves. Bessel said that other coronavirus cases tend to slow as the weather warms and temperatures and humidity levels rise. She said if that is true of COVID-19, that could be a good sign for residents in Arizona.

Coping with COVID-19

Some advice from Dr. Marjorie Bessel, Banner Health’s chief clinical officer and incident commander.

• If you have symptoms of COVID-19 (fever, cough, difficulty breathing), you should get an initial screening done over the phone before visiting a healthcare facility.

• Call your primary care provider

• Call another healthcare provider

• Call The Arizona Department of Health Services at 1-844-542-8201

•  If you have acute symptoms of COVID-19, you should call 911

Flattening the curve

To slow down the rate of infection from COVID-19, healthcare experts are asking the public to:

• Stay home

• Wash hands frequently and thoroughly (20 seconds or more)

• Avoid touching face

• Don’t go to work or any activities if you are feeling ill

• Avoid gatherings of more than 50 people

• If you are 60 years old or more; or if you have medical conditions that put your immune system at risk, avoid crowds of 10 people or more.