Hennepin Healthcare transforms ER to address influx of COVID-19 patients

The coronavirus pandemic has put immense stress on hospital systems, as none were immediately prepared for a virus this contagious.

Officials in the emergency department at Hennepin Healthcare say they re-designed part of the unit as soon as they started getting cases two months ago. The changes allowed for immediate isolation of suspected cases, and increased protection for patients and staff.

“This virus--and this pandemic--has changed a lot of the way we think because it’s such a contagious disease,” said Dr. Thomas Wyatt, Medical Director of the ER at Hennepin Healthcare.

As the busiest emergency department in the state, staff are currently treating COVID-19 patients all day long.

 "We’re used to coming to work and working hard and having a constant level of readiness, but this is different," said Dr. Wyatt.

He said that as soon as they started seeing COVID-19 cases a couple months ago, they realized their current critical care set up was not designed to treat a highly contagious virus.

“Even though we have large areas dedicated to taking care of critically ill patients,” said Wyatt. “We realized pretty early that it was not built to contain a highly contagious virus like COVID-19.

The traditional stabilization room wasn't safe for this situation, so they created a separate one for COVID-19 patients alone.

In a matter of days, staff converted three existing rooms into negative pressure rooms. These rooms are ideal in treating COVID-19 patients, as the air is constantly filtered.

They're also using safety gear they've never had before, like the battery powered respirators donated by a former colleague and a hyperbaric hood used on less severe cases and developed at Hennepin Healthcare.

“There’s been a lot of innovation in our emergency department and we had to do it in a relatively short period of time," Dr. Wyatt said.

With a virus that they say progresses very quickly, these changes came just in time.