CORONAVIRUS

University of Iowa seeks worker help as COVID-19 operations reach 'new phase'

'We need more labor help'

Dan Mears (right), a security staff member, asks questions to Stephanie Silva (left), of Iowa City at a virus screening
Dan Mears (right), a security staff member, asks questions to Stephanie Silva (left), of Iowa City at a virus screening checkpoint Friday outside the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics in Iowa City. Members of the public are asked whether they have been running a temperature, have a cough or have felt ill. They then have their temperature taken and receive a sticker letting staff know they have been screened. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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IOWA CITY — University of Iowa Health Care has established a line in its budget specifically for coronavirus-related preparations, responses and other expenses — and it’s pulling from that fund to compensate employees willing to take on extra duties or reassignments related to its COVID-19 needs.

“I’ve seen such amazing efforts from the ICUs to inpatient units, from the clinics to the emergency room, from the security team on-site to the off-site teams,” UI Hospitals and Clinics CEO Suresh Gunasekaran said in a Saturday afternoon email to UIHC employees. “We need your help again.”

With COVID-19 operations entering a new phase, Gunasekaran said on the same day Gov. Kim Reynolds announced “community spread” of the novel coronavirus in Iowa, “We need more labor help.”

The hospital, which has confirmed it’s treating at least one COVID-19 patient, is seeking help from any of its employees interested and available to take on extra work or reassignments “related to our COVID-19 preparation and response.”

Those responsibilities could include screening patients and visitors at hospital entrances for symptoms of flu or COVID-19 — as the hospital last week rolled out new restrictions funneling patients and visitors through a few entrances, including the main hospital lobby and the level 2 skyway.

Those entrances saw heavy traffic Friday — their first day in place — with about 560 people screened at the skyway entrance by the middle of the afternoon.

Volunteering UIHC employees also could be asked to help at a recently established influenza-like illness clinic for patients with flu-like symptoms.

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“Additional assistance and responsibilities related to our COVID-19 preparation and response likely will be needed, as well,” according to Gunasekaran’s message.

He said screening experience isn’t necessary — for those workers willing to man a station. And, Gunasekaran said, the hospital is providing on-the-fly training.

Anyone who volunteers during their normal work hours — with the approval of their supervisor or department — will be paid at their regular rate. Employees who work extra hours will be compensated at a baseline rate of $15 an hour, with merit employees eligible for overtime pay.

“Participating employees will be compensated from a recently established budget line designated for COVID-19,” according to the Gunasekaran message that noted the special request won’t affect departmental and unit budgets and that employees aren’t obliged to step up.

Conserving equipment

In the hospital’s continued preparation for the possibility of more COVID-19 patients, Gunasekaran in a separate email announced a change in the campus’ use of personal protective equipment — specifically gowns.

Faculty and staff treating patients “in contact precautions” for conditions other than confirmed or suspected COVID-19 — or patients under 2 with a viral respiratory illness — no longer will wear gowns, according to a message from Gunasekaran.

“This measure is being taken to preserve the supply of gowns for patients with COVID-19,” Gunasekaran said in the message to staff.

Gowns should still be worn if a splash or spray of body fluids or blood is expected. And the hospital’s epidemiologists — in addition to the campus’ already stringent hygiene policies and practices — are strongly urging “bare below the elbows” attire to avoid sleeve contamination.

As the hospital has ramped up its conservation of personal protective equipment, it has removed face masks from kiosks at building and clinic entrances.

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“With the COVID-19 reports from across the country, we have seen an increase in people taking face masks when they may not need them,” UIHC spokeswoman Molly Rossiter said. “The masks are designed to be used by people who are already sick to reduce the risk of infecting those around them. Healthy people wearing the masks will still be vulnerable to illness as it is spread through droplets coming into contact with the skin and eyes, it is not an airborne disease.”

More visitor restrictions

Gov. Kim Reynolds on Saturday night added Iowa to the growing list of states with evidence of community spread of COVID-19 when she announced confirmation of a case in a Dallas County resident.

The other dozen-plus Iowa cases were related to travel — all but one to an Egyptian cruise and living in Johnson County. With the new Dallas County case involving a resident in the 61-80 age range, and with recent news of community spread in the bordering city of Omaha, the Iowa Department of Public Health has determined, “There is now community spread in our state,” Reynolds said.

UIHC is the largest and top-ranked hospital system in the state — and the only connected to a medical college — making it a likely destination for COVID-19 cases, although other health care centers across Iowa are prepared as well.

In anticipation of more patients, the hospital Saturday sent a message to families warning of changes, in that it is “no longer possible for us to operate as we normally do.”

“In order to keep my word of ensuring the safety of everyone in our care, I have made the difficult but necessary decision to place additional restrictions for visitors to our hospitals and clinics effective immediately,” Gunasekaran said in the letter.

The new restrictions limit one visitor a day for adult patients and two a day for pediatric patients — and those visitors must be parents or legal guardians.

Additionally, visitors must be 18 or older and healthy. And, per the new screening mandates, they must be checked when they arrive and identify which patient they’re visiting. Some patient areas might have additional restrictions.

Last week’s new visitor restrictions still allowed kids to come — if they were deemed necessary for the patient’s well-being.

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“I fully recognize that these restrictions may be an inconvenience and a source of frustration, especially at a time when you wish to be with friends or loved ones,” he wrote. “I sincerely apologize.”

And he urged those excluded from visiting to keep in touch with patients through calls or videoconferencing — mirroring another tactic the hospital has employed to improve safety that asks patients to start with a video visit if they have flu-like symptoms or COVID-19 concerns.

“A video visit using your smartphone or computer reduces the risk of transmitting illness from person to person,” according to UIHC.

Comments: (319) 339-3158; vanessa.miller@thegazette.com

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