Inside shuttered West Virginia hospital is ‘pot of gold’

WHEELING, W.Va. (AP) — West Virginia emergency officials found more than a dozen ventilators and other important equipment in the shuttered Ohio Valley Medical Center this week as they prepare for possible shortages amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Lou Vargo is director of the Wheeling-Ohio County Homeland Security and Emergency Management Agency. He told The Intelligencier that plans and training scenarios for a pandemic response are being put to the test for the first time in the Ohio Valley.

“A lot of things we prepare for, we’re dealing with now,” Vargo said. “We have emergency plans for floods and blizzards and chemical spills, and we’ve practiced those and have dealt with those. We have a pandemic plan, and we’ve tested that plan, but now we’ve taken it off the shelf and we’ve activated that plan.

“This is the first (time) not only in West Virginia and in Ohio County, but globally that this pandemic plan has been put into use.”

That included a walk-through at the former Ohio Valley Medical Center facility in Wheeling this week.

“There’s a national shortage of personal protective equipment for our first responders and our hospital personnel,” Vargo said. “We did come across a lot of disposable gowns and gloves, hand sanitizers, and a big thing we have had a hard time coming across is face shields, so when first responders are dealing with patients in these situations, there’s no exposure to their faces.”

The hospital also has negative pressure units and more than a dozen ventilators, including an infant ventilator.

“It was like finding a pot of gold in there,” Vargo said of the ventilators. “If things are going to get bad like we’re seeing in New York and in these bigger cities, it’s essential to have those. We also found anesthesia machines, which have ventilators on them and can be converted for use as ventilators if need be.”

Vargo said using the hospital’s existing rooms and equipment would be ideal if a worst-case scenario unfolds. In the past, emergency responders have used high school gymnasiums and vacant hotel rooms or dormitories for triage or emergency staging areas. OVMC was a functioning hospital just before it closed its doors in September.

“To have a hospital like this that we can actually reactivate and use is a great asset,” Vargo said. “We looked at the intensive care and cardiac care units here. Those are glass enclosed individual rooms that we can isolate a patient in there. It would be an ideal situation if we could get that functioning again.”

Vargo said his agency works with surrounding counties and will share resources.

“We work well with Marshall County, Brooke County and all of the other counties,” he said. “Dodridge County found a supply of N95 masks, so they divided that surplus to the rest of the counties in the region. That’s the kind of example of how we are going to work together.”

Wheeling is working with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is making plans for “worst-case scenarios” in the COVID-19 pandemic.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks, and the majority of people recover. But severe cases can need respirators to survive, and with infections spreading exponentially, hospitals across the country are either bracing for a coming wave of patients, or already struggling to keep up.

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