Only essential visitors are allowed inside Medical Center, Navicent Health, where staff is bracing for a surge of COVID-19 cases.

Only essential visitors are allowed inside Medical Center, Navicent Health, where staff is bracing for a surge of COVID-19 cases. / Center for Collaborative Journalism

As the surge of COVID-19 patients is expected to peak in about three weeks, the team at Medical Center, Navicent Health, is battling an unprecedented enemy.

“We’re able. We’re ready and positioned to do the right thing,” Navicent CEO Ninfa Saunders told board members Tuesday afternoon.

Saunders and the leaders of four of Georgia’s largest hospitals sent a letter last month asking Gov. Brian Kemp for a state lockdown for at least 14 days. She also has been pushing for Bibb County to do the same.

Kemp is expected to sign a “stay at home”  executive order later this week to help reduce the spread and limit the strain on hospitals.

Board member Rick Shackelford asked how the hospital stands on ventilators needed to meet the demands of the critically ill.

“Very good,” Saunders replied.

She indicated a recent inventory assures an “adequate supply” with no critical shortage “at the moment.”

Saunders stopped short of saying exactly how many ventilators are available at the Macon hospital or in the hands of its strategic partner, Atrium Health.

Other hospitals are being transparent by releasing the number of COVID-19 patients being treated and how many people have been tested, but Navicent refuses to release that information and answer other questions asked by the Center for Collaborative Journalism, or CCJ, and its partners 13WMAZ, Georgia Public Broadcasting and The Telegraph.

In response to a joint inquiry from those four newsrooms, the hospital released the following:

“We are committed to protecting the privacy of all patients who have been tested for COVID-19, whether or not the test results are positive. As these patients recover and return to society, we want to ensure they are not stigmatized.”

Saunders told the board patient privacy is paramount, but it remains unclear how releasing those numbers jeopardizes anyone’s personal information.

The CCJ maintains that without data from results of tests requested and administered to those showing symptoms, it is impossible to see the scope of possible infections in Middle Georgia and give residents a better indication of why they should stay home.

Since the beginning of March, the hospital’s command center has been navigating the challenges of the global pandemic with a rotating hierarchy of leaders, Saunders told the board.

Only essential visitors are allowed into the hospital where all staff has been wearing masks since last week, she said. Temperature checks are required at the two remaining entrances to the hospital. All other entry points are closed.

Dr. Reg Gilbreath, an internist with experience in emergency medicine, is overseeing care from the patient’s perspective and system quality.

“No one can be sure of what’s ahead,” Gilbreath told board members. “Navicent Health is planning on a surge in the next few weeks.”

Taking care of their own

In addition to patient care, the hospital is working to ensure the safety of its workforce.

Gilbreath said Navicent is working with the whole Atrium health system in the “redeployment of teammates and preserving valuable resources for times ahead.”

Navicent has tapped into pharmaceutical resources to make sure patients have access to the latest medicines and is working toward on-site lab testing, he said.

Gilbreath heralded the commitment, valor and heroism of the staff.

“I personally have borne witness to many amazing acts of compassionate care,” Gilbreath told the board.

Public recognition of healthcare workers for the sacrifices they make is going a long way to boost morale.

Shortly after the teleconferenced board meeting concluded, vehicles with horns blaring circled the Medical Center at shift change. Motorists and passengers held signs in support of those who are on the front lines combatting the virus and working to save lives.

A temporary daycare for the children of Navicent workers has been set up inside The Wellness Center, Navicent Health, on Northside Drive.

The facility can handle up to 260 children and is staffed by employees and volunteers, Saunders said. They are ramping up incrementally and currently are caring for about 70 children.

About 500 people are working from home in support of “shelter in place” guidelines.

The hospital also is reserving nearly two dozen beds on the third floor of a local hotel to give workers a place to stay if they have concerns about potentially spreading the virus to family members, Saunders said.

The Navicent Health Foundation has begun a “Feed the Fight” campaign for hospital workers. Donations from the public purchase food to go from struggling local restaurants who have seen a dramatic drop in revenue. Due to health concerns, the Navicent cafeteria now only serves pre-packaged food.

“Working with local restaurants is a win-win for the community, the restaurants and the hospital,” foundation board chair Tom Gibbons said.

The foundation also is collecting donations to assist in the purchase of masks, personal protective equipment and other needed supplies. Donations could also result in purchasing a testing machine to speed results for suspected cases.

Tracey Blalock, Navicent’s chief nursing officer, reported to the board about how the hospital has been handling the crisis since the first cases were reported in Georgia weeks ago.

“You guys have prepared us very well for this and we are ready,” Blalock said.

Before the first COVID-19 patient arrived, nurses were briefed on how to minimize exposure when drawing labs, feeding those sickened with the virus and wiping down surfaces to stop the spread.

“Diligent work in preparing has paid off,” Blalock said. “(We’re) very efficient in our processes and put together kits and grab them – regardless of the hour – and go.”

While the new coronavirus presents unique challenges and trying times for healthcare professionals, little things are making a big difference, she said.

Recently, staff entering from the parking deck were met with inspirational messages written on the windows of the walkway over Pine Street.

“Really touched them,” Blalock said.

One of the workers had tears of appreciation well up while reading the notes.

“Morale of the staff caring for our patients is very phenomenal,” she said.

Board chair Starr Purdue told them: “It’s going to take all of us pulling together to have the best outcome possible from this pandemic. … We see what everybody’s doing and we appreciate that.”

Contact Civic Reporting Senior Fellow Liz Jarvis Fabian at 478-301-2976 or