By Douglas MacQueen, MD
The recent approval of two vaccines for COVID-19 and other vaccine approvals expected in 2021 are major accomplishments in health care. These tools may end the COVID-19 pandemic, but until then it is essential we continue practices for preventing the spread of the virus: frequent hand washing, wearing a mask in public, practicing social distancing and monitoring your health each day.
Even with vaccinations starting in our region, it will be months before residents can be safe from contracting the COVID-19 virus. To prepare for the vaccination effort while preventing the spread of the disease, Cayuga Health System has improved procedures in its hospitals and medical offices to protect patients from the virus while a community vaccination plan is developed.
What is Cayuga Health doing to prevent COVID infections?
Preventing the spread COVID infections in our community has been a major initiative by Cayuga Health and the Tompkins County Health Department. We were among the first counties in New York to open a mass sampling center. There are now six sites: the Shops at Ithaca Mall parking lot, 40 Catherwood Drive, Lansing; 412 North Tioga St., Ithaca; the parking lot of Cayuga Medical Center, 101 Dates Drive, Ithaca; 220 Steuben St., Montour Falls; Gutchess Lumber Sports Complex Park, 3111 Byrne Hollow Crossing, Cortland and at the CNY Regional Market F-Shed, 2100 Park St., Syracuse To complete the required preregistration for an appointment at these locations for a COVID test, visit www.cayugahealth.org or call 607-319-5708.
Where are the samples tested?
We process test samples at the Cayuga Medical Center Laboratory that has more than tripled its testing capacity since spring. Cayuga Health opened a dedicated COVID Processing Center & Laboratory at Brown Road this fall, and the new facility can test 15,000 samples each week. The Lab plans to increase testing capacity in 2021 and continue delivering results in less than two days.
Why is testing important?
Expanding COVID-19 testing and delivering rapid results are essential to limit the spread of the disease. When a sample shows a patient has a COVID-19 infection, outreach nurses at Cayuga Health or the Tompkins County Health Department notify the person within a day so they can quarantine and get treatment. Nurses also ask the infected patients about people and places where they may have spread the virus so we can test others for COVID-19.
Has the COVID testing effort been effective?
Since the pandemic began last spring, the CMC Laboratory has processed over 700,000 test samples. About 80 percent of those samples were from Tompkins County, which continues to have the lowest infection rate in the state. The testing program along with residents using masks and following other COVID-19 prevention recommendations all contribute to the community’s low infection rate.
How is Cayuga Health protecting patients from coronavirus infection?
We continue to upgrade prevention procedures. Creating isolation rooms at Cayuga Medical Center for treating COVID patients last spring were among the earliest efforts, and we have added more rooms this fall. We separate those rooms from other parts of the hospital and maintain negative pressure that pulls air into the room and prevents air containing coronavirus from escaping into the building. A ventilation and filtration system separate from the hospital’s system treats exhaust air from the COVID patient rooms before being released outside the hospital. We now have portable ventilation and filtration units that can rapidly convert a hospital room into an isolation room. That gives us more flexibility to handle a surge in COVID cases. The filters in these units can remove the virus from the air.
How have hospitals procedures changed to prevent infections?
We screen all employees and patients for COVID symptoms or contacts before they are allowed to enter either Cayuga Medical Center or Schuyler Hospital, Convenient Care locations and medical office buildings. Patients admitted to the hospitals or having same day-surgery are all tested for the virus.
Employees receive regular tests for coronavirus infections, and our cafes and cafeterias have been closed to the public to reduce virus transmission risk. Additional cleaning and disinfecting of all our facilities minimize the spread of the virus. We disinfect all examination and procedure rooms after we see each patient. Visitors are not currently allowed at our hospitals or the Seneca View Nursing Home at Schuyler Hospital.
Dr. MacQueen is board certified in internal medicine and infectious diseases. He is the Medical Director of Cayuga Medical Center’s Antimicrobial Stewardship Program and the Infection Prevention Program that has most recently focused on coronavirus care and prevention in the Cayuga Health System. He can be reached at the Cayuga Center for Infectious Diseases at (607) 257-2920.