ROCHELLE — With much of the state slated for a full reopening without COVID-19 restrictions on Friday, masks and measures will remain indefinitely at Rochelle Community Hospital. And its CEO, Gregg Olson, is OK with that.
“I think it makes a lot of sense,” Olson said. “We're still in a healthcare setting here. We're not beyond this pandemic yet. There's still cases, albeit much lower. People are still dying. The virus unfortunately is still out there. I don't think we're beyond it yet.”
Olson cited the abnormal flu season that the hospital saw this year. RCH had nine cases total. Usually it’s 200-300.
“Look at flu season,” Olson said. “We didn't have one. We pretty much got rid of the flu this year. Some facilities had zero cases. I think those precautionary measures we're taking work."
Olson recently discussed what the pandemic experience has been like at RCH with the News-Leader. This story is part one of two. The second will run in the Sunday, June 13 print edition.
Olson said the hospital is “thrilled” about recent COVID-19 developments such as low numbers.
“This has been a nasty virus,” Olson said. “It's been relentless. We probably have turned the corner to some extent, but we're not out of the weeds yet. I'm hopeful this will continue to be the trend. I'm encouraged."
RCH has had to be “incredibly flexible” during the pandemic. As the virus developed and changed, the hospital had to reevaluate its position on things. At one point Olson said RCH was optimistic about the COVID-19 climate, and then the second surge came.
If there was any real positive to come out of the pandemic for Olson, it’s been stronger partnerships with the Ogle County Health Department and the City of Rochelle.
“There were a lot of considerations,” Olson said. “How do we protect the public? How do we protect our patients and staff? It was a constant challenge for us to meet all of those objectives. It took a lot of creativity. Most of our day was taken up talking about this. We've worked very well together for the same goals, to take care of our populations."
Financially, April and May of 2020 were the worst months for RCH in “a long, long time,” Olson said. When the pandemic was announced, RCH stopped a lot of its services like elective surgeries, its regular respiratory department and its cafeteria, which wasn’t open to the public for a time.
Those were steps taken to keep people out of the hospital. As the pandemic got more controlled, the hospital started to say it was OK for prospective patients to come back in. That was hard to do after telling people to stay out.
“A lot came back in later that had held off care,” Olson said. “We had a non-COVID-19 surge of our own, of people who were waiting. Unfortunately some people got sicker than they should've. I think they were afraid to come in.”
Olson said RCH’s financials and non-COVID-19 admission numbers “plummeted” early in the pandemic and are now working back up. On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being where RCH was with providing full healthcare service before the pandemic, he says it’s now at seven or eight.
Financially, Olson said money from the federal government’s CARES Act helped to offset COVID-19 related losses.
“We really appreciate that money,” Olson said. “It was needed for small rural hospitals. I'm not sure many hospitals would have survived without it. We weren't in that category, but it helped us a great deal.”
Olson is proud of the fact that RCH didn’t have any layoffs or furloughs during the pandemic. Staff was moved around and administration got “creative” with job descriptions. He said a lot of hospitals did see layoffs.
“I didn't want our staff coming to work, putting their lives on the line every day and worrying about having a job,” Olson said.
COVID-19 was RCH’s top reason for the admission of patients in the past year. A separate unit was made up just for those patients that included negative pressure rooms where air exchange occurred more frequently to prevent spread.
Measures like those negative pressure rooms may remain in place to some extent at the hospital after the virus eventually fades away in case of some other outbreak or virus.
“I think it might make sense to have things like isolation rooms and negative pressure,” Olson said. “Things like that we'll look at closely and hopefully better practices will come out of that. We did put a lot of time, energy and expense into making this a safer organization."
The hospital took on a larger role in the town, area and county during the pandemic. Olson feels it was RCH’s responsibility being the only hospital in town and in the general area.
According to Olson, RCH took the unprecedented responsibility of the pandemic head on. It knew how large of a task it was going to be.
“I think it was a huge undertaking,” Olson said. “We knew it from the beginning, but we had to learn as well. We haven't been through a pandemic like this. We realized how large of a project this was.
"It's been an honor. We're a community hospital.”
For part two of the News-Leader’s conversation with Rochelle Community Hospital CEO Gregg Olson about the hospital’s pandemic experience, see Sunday’s print edition (June 13).