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Health care officials talk with Newhouse about pandemic response

by EMRY DINMAN
Staff Writer | October 22, 2020 1:00 AM

OTHELLO — Congressman Dan Newhouse met with local health care providers and officials in Othello on Tuesday to discuss the needs of workers on the front lines of the pandemic.

The congressman met in a Columbia Basin Health Association conference room with Nieves Gomez, CEO of CBHA; Kelly Carlson, vice president of administrative services for CBHA; Connie Agenbroad, CEO of Othello Community Hospital; Ramona Hicks, CEO of Coulee Medical Center; Karen Potts, administrator of Adams County Health Department; Vicki Guse, administrator of Adams County Integrated Health Care Services; Health Officer Dr. Alexander Brzezny and others.

Local leaders talked to Newhouse about obstacles they have faced while trying to manage the economic and logistical pitfalls of the pandemic, on top of the overall public health crisis they have attempted to stem. In a region with a large agricultural sector, local health providers and officials have struggled to manage outbreaks among agricultural workers, Gomez said Tuesday. That has been compounded by a lack of access to rapid-results coronavirus testing for local health care providers, Gomez added.

“Missing one day is too much, so they’ll just put on a bandanna, say they can go to work and not tell anybody about it and expose others, because they need to put food on the table for their kids,” Gomez said. “When you don’t have the rapid results or something to provide some sort of guidance, that quarantine doesn’t come quickly enough.”

Seven months into the pandemic, health care organizations continue to struggle to maintain staffing levels as employees come into contact with potentially infectious patients or co-workers and are made to quarantine for more than a week. In July and August, Gomez noted, one of CBHA’s departments wasn’t able to answer nearly half of the calls it received after six of the department’s 15 employees were quarantined.

“I made that comment to one of my managers the other day,” Gomez said. “That you can ask me for 10 employees, but if tomorrow seven of them are under quarantine, I can hire another 20 and then you’ll have 17 in quarantine. It’s a never-ending problem.”

Staffing difficulties have not been helped by limited or total closures of public school campuses in the region, which the state have recommended against reopening. With either limited space for students in classrooms, or the schools remaining entirely closed, the situation has complicated things for employees with school-age children who have to stay home, Carlson added.

Local health care providers also continue to struggle to obtain adequate and reliable supplies of personal protective equipment, a challenge that has plagued the nation for months, despite a temporary reprieve in the summer, Hicks said.

Newhouse, currently touring Central Washington to evaluate how communities in the district were handling pandemic-related pressures on their health care and economic systems, noted that negotiations continue between Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin regarding a potential second round of coronavirus relief funds. However, he cautioned, the fate of that negotiation remains unclear.

Emry Dinman can be reached via email at edinman@columbiabasinherald.com.