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Visalia hospital Chief Executive Officer answers community's COVID-19 questions

  • Category: News
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  • Written By: Laura Florez-McCusker

VISALIA – Why has the Department of Defense sent a team to Kaweah Health? What is Kaweah Health's plan when beds fill up? Is Kaweah Health cancelling urgent, non-essential surgeries? Does Kaweah Health send out COVID test results by mail? What is the average age of hospitalized patients?

These are just some of the questions that Tulare County residents asked in the Visalia hospital’s most recent online video conference of Gary Herbst, Kaweah Health's Chief Executive Officer.

Question: Why has the Department of Defense (DOD) sent in a healthcare team to Kaweah Health?

Answer: Last week, Kaweah Health welcomed 21 U.S. military healthcare workers – most from Travis Air Force Base – to assist staff in caring for COVID-19 patients for 30 days. The team is part of 190 military healthcare workers that are being deployed through the state’s emergency management system to hospitals throughout the state that are caring for large numbers of COVID-19 patients. Kaweah Health accepted the DOD’s offer to assist with patients due to staffing challenges as a result of approximately 70 staff members quarantined. These are primarily registered nurses, licensed vocational nurses, and certified nurse assistants. In the meantime, Kaweah Health is hard at work to develop solutions to staffing challenges. Those include incentivizing clinical staff to work additional shifts, hiring additional clinical staff, training all registered nurses on staff with a license so, that in the event they are needed, they are prepared to serve at the bedside, and hiring more student nurse interns.

Question: Is the hospital full of COVID-19 patients?

Answer: No, Kaweah Health is averaging 90 percent capacity, but it is not 90 percent full of COVID-19 patients. Kaweah Health has 333 patients available to adults, which excludes Maternal Child Health (the nursery, the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, Mother-Baby, Labor and Delivery, Pediatrics, etc. Kaweah Health leaves those beds out of the total available beds because it does not put COVID-19 patients in those areas.) Of those 333 beds, as of 8 a.m. on July 20, 289 of those beds have patients in them, of which 65 are COVID-19 positive, so the vast majority of patients are in the hospital for other reasons that require hospitalization – car accidents, heart attacks, open-heart surgery, neurosurgery, orthopedic surgery.

Question: What is the plan if Kaweah Health’s beds fill up?

Answer: Kaweah Health does have surge contingencies in place. As of 8 a.m. on July 20, Kaweah Health has 44 beds open in the medical center, 24 of them in COVID-19 designated areas of the Medical Center. In some areas of the Medical Center, Kaweah Health could go to double occupancy, shut down its endoscopy unit and turn it into an inpatient unit, along with other options. If beds were no longer available in the Medical Center, Kaweah Health could use open beds at its Rehabilitation Hospital on Akers, which during COVID has had about 30 or more beds open, to care for patients. For example, instead of admitting surgical patients into Kaweah Health Medical Center, Kaweah Health could admit them to the Rehabilitation Hospital for post recovery, which would free up beds in the Medical Center downtown. Additionally, Kaweah Health could use open beds in its short-stay unit also inside its Rehabilitation Hospital. There is also the Porterville Development Center, which is only currently being used for patients of skilled nursing facilities who were COVID-19 positive, but no longer require acute care. That could be an alternative option for patients.

Question: In light of the Lifestyle Center closing, is Kaweah Health cancelling urgent, non-emergency surgeries again as well?

Answer: At this time, no. We continue with emergency and urgent, non-emergency surgeries. When Kaweah Health restarted urgent, non-emergency surgeries, it did so in a way that would allow the Visalia hospital to ramp up or ramp down as decisions are dictated. Urgent, non-emergency surgeries are really quality of life surgeries. These could be patients in a lot of pain, a hernia, a joint replacement, etc. Kaweah Health's is running 11 operating rooms and is doing 8-11 non-emergency surgeries per day. Right now, Kaweah Health is continuing to be very careful and cautious.

Question: What is the average age of hospitalized patients?

Answer: We have about 40% of our patients with COVID who are under the age of 60. Our youngest patient hospitalized with COVID is 25 years old and many of our patients are in their 40s and 50s. Our critical care areas are split 50/50 with patients over and under 60 years old.

Question: Does KD send out COVID test results by mail?

Answer: No, Kaweah Health does not notify people of results by mail.

Question: What is the turnaround for a COVID-19 test these days?

Answer: It all depends, especially in recent weeks. If your specimen is collected at Kaweah Health's Floral Street collection site, the turnaround could be: Same-day for local healthcare workers, 24-48 hours if done by the County lab, 14-17 days if done by a commercial lab (mostly asymptomatic patients). Anyone who has symptoms and would like to be tested needs a physician referral. If they do not have a physician, they can call 211 or Kaweah Health's COVID-19 Hotline at 559-624-4110.

Kaweah Health shares COVID-19 information and regular updates with the community on its website at and on its social media accounts.