Louisiana rural hospital reshuffles staff to fight sudden surge of COVID-19 cases

A rural hospital in Louisiana had to transform surgical staff into nurses as cases of COVID-19 unexpectedly surged in the community.

“We reassigned staff in a variety of different roles,” said Mary Ellen Pratt, CEO of St. James Parish Hospital in Lutcher, Louisiana. “This is one of the things that rural hospitals do well: We are used to not having a lot of resources.”

The quick staff cross-training comes as rural hospitals, which already operate under thin margins, try to handle an influx of COVID-19 patients. Pratt spoke during a webinar Tuesday sponsored by the American Hospital Association.

That influx happened very quickly for the roughly 200-employee hospital.

RELATED: Rural hospitals prepare, brace for COVID-19 as funding dwindles for needed supplies

COVID-19 ramped up quickly in Louisiana, which recorded its first case March 9 and “recorded the highest growth rate in the world in the first two weeks,” Pratt said.

The county of 22,000 residents that lies between Baton Rouge and New Orleans at one point had the highest per capita rate of cases in the country.

During that initial surge, the hospital transformed all types of staff to meet the crush of COVID-19 patients.

St. James didn’t have an ICU, so they had to quickly create one and then staff it with medical-surgical nurses. The hospital also had surgical staff become medical-surgical nurses at the bedside.

RELATED: Safety net hospitals to Congress: Give us more targeted funding, changes to DSH and 340B to combat COVID-19

“Radiology staff were restocking [personal protective equipment] and moving materials through the organization and supporting us with environmental services and cleaning,” Pratt said. “Our access registration staff turned into the screeners at the front door.”

The hospital also leveraged its anesthesiologists to bring them in-house to support staff as more and more patients had to be put on ventilators.

“We leveraged our medical staff in some unique ways,” Pratt said.