UPMC officials discuss future of COVID-19

Dr. Donald Yealy, chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine at UPMC and University of Pittsburgh, speaks during a Wednesday news conference.

PITTSBURGH — Although the number of people with COVID-19 that require hospital care has been on a downward trend for weeks, everyone must be vigilant to fight spread of the virus, UPMC officials said Wednesday.

Dr. Donald Yealy, chairman of the Department of Emergency Medicine at UPMC and University of Pittsburgh, said medical officials anticipate a rise in positive COVID-19 cases, especially in younger, healthy people, as testing increases.

Most folks who contract the disease will have mild or no symptoms, he said.

UPMC has performed more than 44,000 COVID-19 tests, with 15,000 in asymptomatic people scheduled to receive a procedure at a facility within the hospital system.  

“Systemwide, we’re at the lowest numbers of hospitalized COVID-19 patients since early April,” Yealy said during a virtual press conference. “Currently, we have about half the number of people hospitalized that we had at the peak of the pandemic here in our communities.”

Nationally, the number of positive COVID-19 cases is rising, but fewer people are dying from the virus, he said.  

“That’s why we watch hospitalization rates and … the need for intensive care,” Yealy said. “Those numbers, too, are coming down compared to the peak.”

Additionally, less of the virus is being found in people who test positive for the disease, he said.

Reasons for the improved conditions are likely due to people who practice social distancing, frequently wash hands and wear a mask “correctly,” Yealy said.

“If I can see your nose or I can see your mouth, you’re not wearing your mask correctly,” he said.

He also talked of knowledge the hospital system gained in treating patients with the novel coronavirus.

Initially, the inclination among medical experts across the country was to immediately place a severely ill COVID-19 patient on a breathing machine. 

“At UPMC we learned to use other options first,” Yealy said. “We found out that once a COVID-19 ill patient was placed on a ventilator, it was difficult for them to ever successfully come off that ventilator.”

The virus, like many other coronaviruses, could change with the seasons, and the timing of a safe and effective vaccine “is still a big if,” he said.

However, people should not be afraid to seek emergency medical care, he said.

“Our hospitals are safe, and we’re ready to care for you,” Yealy said. “Don’t make a bad decision because of your fears.”

Tami Minnier, UPMC chief quality officer, talked of caring for patients as the flu season approaches.

“While we do not know what the fall and winter will bring, we are diligently preparing for whatever might come,” she said. “That means growing our supply of personal protective equipment.”

The hospital system is also using 3-D printing to produce nasal swabs for COVID-19 tests, and replacement parts for ventilators, Minnier said.

UPMC might also administer the flu vaccine to employees earlier in the fall than usual, she said. 

The hospital system is also considering the creation of a mobile COVID-19 testing unit for people who can’t travel, Minnier said.

While UPMC will contribute to a national network that studies effectiveness of potential vaccines, “our key focus right now remains and needs to be on taking care of our vulnerable, elderly, chronically ill and immunosuppressed populations,” she said. 

“Infectious diseases will be a part of our future,” Minnier said. “We need you to continue to do your part with physical distancing, wearing masks and hand washing. … It is the absolute right thing to do.” 

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