How Prepared Are Our Local Hospitals to Handle a COVID-19 Outbreak?

JEFFERSON CO., Pa. (EYT) – COVID-19 has started to hit Northwest/North-Central Pennsylvania, and the question on everyone’s mind is: “can our hospital systems handle it?”

As cases start to trickle into local hospitals – as of 10:00 a.m. Thursday, March 26, there were at least two suspected cases in Clarion Hospital and another 14 (13 suspected, one confirmed) in Butler Memorial Hospital – that is the pressing question on many people’s minds.

Hospitals contacted by – Butler Health System (Clarion and Butler Hospitals), UPMC (Northwest and Kane), Penn Highlands Healthcare (Brookville, DuBois, and Clearfield Hospitals), and Punxsutawney Hospital – wouldn’t divulge the specific number of needed equipment like ventilators each hospital had, with only UPMC even responding to the question.

“At this time, we are not disclosing information regarding particular numbers of equipment,” Karen Beardsley, Manager of Media Relations for UPMC Northwest and UPMC Kane, told

“We have the support of a large system of 40 hospitals and their resources.”

While it is unknown how many ventilators each hospital has, it was easy enough to find the estimated number of beds and ICU beds in each hospital.

The website for Kaiser Health News –– recently published a study of the number of ICU beds in each county in the United States including Clarion, Jefferson, Clearfield, Venango, Butler, and Armstrong Counties.

In total, those counties, according to KHN have a total of 94 ICU beds (and, it should be noted that was not able to confirm the numbers) – broken down by 35 in Butler County, 27 in Clearfield County, 12 in Armstrong County, eight in Venango County, seven in Clarion County, and five in Jefferson County.

With a 2017 estimated population in those six counties of 466,459 that is one ICU bed per 4,962.3 people.  The numbers weren’t broken down by the hospital, just by county.

According to a media release from Butler Health System, as of 10:00 a.m. Thursday, March 26, two of the ICU beds at Clarion Hospital were in use by the suspected COVID-19 patients, while four of the ICU beds at Butler Memorial Hospital were filled with either confirmed or suspected COVID-19 patients.

The number of total beds in those hospitals is obviously better but not great with a total of 1,033 (Butler Memorial Hospital – 313; Penn Highlands DuBois – 216; UPMC Northwest – 171; Armstrong County Hospital in Kittanning – 164; Clarion – 65; Punxsutawney – 44; Titusville – 25), according to the American Hospitals Directory.

While the hospital bed and ICU bed situation doesn’t look great, multiple health systems in the region wanted to make the public aware that the vast majority of people who contract COVID-19 won’t need to be admitted to the hospital.

“Be aware that the vast majority of patients who test positive do not require hospitalization (80 percent),” Ken DeFurio, President/CEO of Butler Health Systems wrote in a post on the Systems’ website.

“These patients will self-quarantine at home. However, there will continue to be some patients who require acute care and hospitalization.”

UPMC’s Beardsley agrees with DeFurio’s assessment that most people who contract COVID-19 won’t need to be hospitalized.

“We anticipate that most patients will not need to be admitted and will recover at home,” Beardsley said. “This would be a good time to use UPMC Anywhere Care. For patients who must be admitted, we are fortunate to have a multitude of hospital and nonhospital locations that we can leverage for different types of clinical needs. We’re also looking into the role that our world-class telemedicine can play.”

But, what happens if more patients continue to come to the hospitals? Are the hospitals capable of handling it? Is there enough protective equipment for staff? What steps have hospitals taken in preparation for receiving cases?

Most local hospitals directed to their websites when asked what preparedness steps have been taken and what the hospitals’ capacity to handle the crisis is.

Exceptions were UPMC and Punxsutawney Hospital.

“Ebola, H1N1, SARS – these are infectious diseases that UPMC has prepared for in recent years,” Beardsley said. “We continually screen for emerging infections and have for decades. In developing our COVID-19 preparedness measures, we started ahead of the curve building from what we’ve learned from these previous epidemics and pandemics.”

Punxsutawney Hospital President/CEO Daniel Blough said the situation is an emerging and rapidly evolving one.

“Punxsutawney Area Hospital is working with the Pennsylvania Department of Health and the CDC,” Blough said. “The hospital will continue to provide updated information to our community as it becomes available. Our board, medical staff and employees are working 24/7 to protect people’s health. This includes our healthcare workforce by operationalizing our emergency preparedness plan.

“I want to assure the community that your hospital and the incredibly dedicated team of staff and clinicians we have here are doing everything they can do go prepare for potential cases of Coronavirus. While we have not yet had a confirmed case of COVID 19 in Punxsutawney (as of Monday, March 23), residents should be taking this situation very seriously and taking every precaution we can to prevent any potential spread within our community. In fact, we should be acting as if the virus is already here.

“We are in full support of the Pennsylvania Department of Health’s advising residents business and organizations to cancel events and gatherings, practice social distancing, work from home if you are able to, and take everyday actions that are proven to prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses like COVID-19. Those include: avoiding close contact with people who are sick, avoiding touching eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands, washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer, and staying home if you feel sick.

“Your hospital has been here for over 100 years and we are committed to the people we serve.”

According to a question & answer document sent to by Punxsutawney Hospital, the hospital has put up some tents on the hospital campus.

“Our response plan for managing an infectious disease community outbreak includes the ability to screen, triage, evaluate, and potentially care for patients in alternative care settings,” Blough said.

“The hospital is evaluating our current systems and processes. We are training, drilling, and dry running our systems in case we need to respond quickly. Working with the medical staff, we want to make sure we are prepared if and when a surge of patients presents to our campus. Our focus is on keeping both our dedicated staff and our patients in the safest environment by reducing the risk of transmission to health care workers and other patients. Patients coming to the campus may see screeners at our entrances, new entrances and people with PPE (personal protective equipment) like masks and other protective clothing.”

It does appear that local hospitals are trying to do everything they can to be prepared to handle cases.

“We are well-stocked of everything at the moment,” Kristine Gasbarre, Marketing & Communication Coordinator of the Penn Highlands Healthcare, which includes hospitals in Brookville, DuBois, Clearfield, and St. Marys. “We are trying to plan and prepare as much as possible. Our patient and staff safety is our No. 1 priority.”

Beardsley said UPMC, the biggest hospital system in Western Pennsylvania, has a strong supply chain in place to ensure it is receiving an adequate supply of personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves, and gowns.

“We keep a rotating stockpile in several secure locations,” Beardsley said. “We are closely tracking our allocation of these supplies to our facilities to make sure they have what they need but that none is being wasted.”

Punxsutawney’s Blough said the hospital is monitoring its equipment and practicing resource management to protect its employees now and into the future.

“We have enough protective equipment today and into the future, and we are working to ensure we have adequate equipment for future weeks and months,” Blough said. “Obviously, our supply needs are dependent on the number of patients who present to our campus for diagnosis, care, and treatment.”

Knowing that it will eventually run short of masks and needed medical supplies, the Butler Health System has put out a call to local businesses that are able to help healthcare providers stay safe by donating those items. Items being asked for include N95 masks, earloop masks, pump bottler of hand sanitizers of more than 60 percent alcohol, pump bottles of non-scented soap, face shields/visors, and nitrile gloves. More information can be found here.

“Every little bit helps,” a message on the Butler Health System’s website said. “Your supplies could make all the difference in the battle against COVID-19.”

Penn Highlands is also asking community members and organizations to donate personal protective equipment (PPE) for the region’s healthcare system including N95 respirator masks, face masks, surgical masks, exam gloves, isolation gowns, head covers, shoe covers, and Sani-Cloth wipes.

“Penn Highlands will add these supplies to their inventory as the health system enacts preparedness measures in the event that the spread of COVID-19 should pose a threat to our community,” a media release from Penn Highland said.

Donors to Penn Highlands may reach out to Alycia Scott, Procurement Specialist (814-375-3391 or or Jennifer Bowser, MMIS Support Assistant (814-375-3370 or

Penn Highlands has also set up a COVID-19 Task Force led by System Medical Director of Emergency Services Dr. Shaun Sheehan.

“The Penn Highlands COVID-19 Task Force team includes key representatives from across the Penn Highlands Healthcare System, including physicians, nursing leaders, infectious disease specialists, infection control directors, supply chain managers, system executives, nursing home administrators, and home care leaders,” a message on the company’s website said. “The group meets regularly to address the most current needs in response to COVID-19.”

Penn Highlands has also implemented a system-wide refresher training for its staff to review best practices and techniques related to personal protection equipment, patient safety, staff safety, and policies.

“This training is intended to support the skills staff have learned in past professional training and adapt them to scenarios such as the occurrence of COVID-19,” the company’s website said.


The Butler Health System now has testing locations open and in operation.

As of Monday, March 23,  a physician order was required to be tested. If someone feels ill, they should contact their primary care physician for further instructions. If a person does not have a primary care physician they should call Butler Memorial Hospital at 833-602-CARE (2273) or Clarion Hospital at 814-226-1DOC (1362).

As of Wednesday, March 25, there had been 680 total COVID-19 in the Butler Health System with 476 at the Butler Memorial Hospital outdoor facility and another 93 at the Clarion Hospital Outdoor facility.

UPMC’s Beardsley said that if a person suspects they have COVID-19 and aren’t having a high fever or breathing problems they should call their primary care physician or use UPMC Anywhere care – an online place to get care -to get initial advice.

“Doing this from home is best for all and limits the spread of any infection,” Beardsley said. “If needed, we can guide you safely to the next care site.”

Beardsley said if a person has a high fever or breathing trouble, they should go to their emergency department – UPMC sites are ready to provide care.

She also reiterated the steps people can take to help prevent themselves from getting the disease.

“Wash your hands frequently with soap and water, or use hand sanitizer,” Beardsley said. “Cough or sneeze into your elbow or a tissue and throw it away. Stay home when sick. The CDC does not recommend healthy people use facemasks at this time. Handwashing and avoiding touching your face are much more effective interventions. Stay informed. The CDC is the best source of information for people in the United States.”

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