Guam’s health care system barely holding up due to Covid surge
The raging Covid-19 infections, with the end nowhere in sight, have thrust Guam’s fragile health care system near its breaking point as the island’s civilian hospitals struggle to manage the surge.
The 158-bed Guam Memorial Hospital has exceeded its capacity, while more than a dozen of its coronavirus-stricken employees are currently in isolation.
Dr. Joleen Aguon, director of GMH clinical services, reported that the government hospital had 168 admissions that included 41 Covid cases as of Monday.
“We work hard to protect our emergency department,” Aguon said. “When we become incredibly saturated, we are always open to more help. We are currently dealing with similar numbers. We are making it work and doing as best as we can.”
Previously the toast of the town for its successful vaccination campaign, Guam has slipped back into the infections pit, with daily numbers coming in three digits. Hospitalizations have quadrupled since last month.
“We are certainly in a crisis. I don’t want to sugarcoat that at all,” said Dr. Alexander Wielaard, chief medical officer at Guam Regional Medical City. “We are operating at capacities that are highly abnormal for us.”
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As of Tuesday, a total of 15 Covid patients combined were confined at the intensive care units of GMH, GRMC and U.S. Naval Hospital Guam. Five were on ventilators.
Guam currently has a total of 71 hospitalizations, jumping from 16 recorded admissions over a month ago.
Although challenged by a taxing situation, Wielaard said GRMC doesn’t turn patients away.
“I think we still have hospital capacity at this point. Due to significant teamwork, we are able to expand our capacity, " Wielaard said at Monday’s press conference. “It is refreshing to see a group effort of people coming out, realizing that we need to pull ourselves together to really take care of our people."
At GMH, 19 employees have tested positive for Covid-19 and are currently isolating, said Mai Habib, the hospital’s public information officer.
A total of 44 employees have tested Covid positive since January of this year.
Habib said most of the staff employees have been catching the virus from community spread, such as in their homes and at schools, rather than at the hospital.
“Our Infection Control and Employee Health teams work quickly and efficiently to contact trace any symptomatic/positive Covid staff,” Habib said.
“GMH has very thorough Covid infection control policies, to include designated Covid staffing, appropriate PPE use at all times and employee health monitoring to ensure sick employees are not showing up to shifts,” she added.
During the peak of virus transmissions last year, a medical surge forced GMH to set up beds outside the emergency department’s entrance to accommodate incoming patients.
Guam received a medical reinforcement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency last year to assist the GMH staff that was augmented by a team of travel nurses.
“One of the changes we are seeing in this particular wave of the pandemic is that there are less opportunities for outside help compared to what we typically see,” Wielaard said, noting that Guam’s medical crisis is no different from the national public health predicament.
“Hospitals across the U.S. have to hire travel nurses to help supplement staff in locations where a surge is happening,” he said. “Guam is no exception to that.”
The governor’s office said two clinical laboratory scientists from the U.S. Public Health Service arrived on Guam last Friday to assist the Guam Public Health Laboratory, accompanied by two other personnel who assist with logistics.
Matthew C. Johns, regional health administrator commander of the Health and Human Services Region; and Nick Munoz, commander of the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response Regional Emergency Coordinator, are on Guam to conduct Covid-19 site assessments.
Guam is expecting assistance from FEMA, which is sending three five-member teams to support the island’s ongoing Covid-19 response efforts.
The teams are anticipated to arrive on Guam next week. “These team members will assist in providing outpatient monoclonal antibody therapy,” the governor’s office said.