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Public Health Professionals Feel Strain Created by COVID-19

Mon, 08/17/2020 - 15:34pm | By: Van Arnold

Gregg Gibbes The continuing COVID-19 crisis has stretched public healthcare professionals to their limits and created a massive strain on hospitals – particularly the rural ones that dot South Mississippi’s landscape.

Gregg Gibbes serves as administrator/CEO for three such facilities: Covington County Hospital in Collins; Magee General Hospital in Magee, and Simpson General Hospital in Mendenhall. Gibbes, a University of Southern Mississippi alumnus, notes that staffing has been the biggest challenge facing his hospitals since the pandemic’s onset.

“We have been severely stretched over the past few months. At one point, one of my hospitals had nearly 20 percent of staff out because of COVID,” said Gibbes. “But I think it illustrates how strong our staff is, that we can have so many folks out and our staff is still strong enough to hold it together during the toughest of times. They truly are a team to be proud of.”

Like many hospitals throughout the nation, rural facilities have seen a steady influx of COVID-19 patients. At one point in April, Magee General was treating 25 COVID patients with just 26-28 staffed beds available. Covington County Hospital is licensed for 35 beds, while Magee General and Simpson General have 44 and 35 respectively.

“The important thing to understand is, that it’s not the lack of beds in our state; it’s a lack of ‘staffed beds.’ Simply put, there are not enough healthcare workers in our state at this time,” said Gibbes.

Gibbes, a native of Soso, Miss., made a conscious decision to pursue a career in healthcare administration while a student at USM after receiving some helpful advice from a family member.

“For me, it wasn’t the mindset of ‘get a degree and see which way to go.’ I wanted to work in hospital administration, so I chose the undergraduate and graduate training programs that I thought would best prepare me to succeed,” he said.

Gibbes has his own piece of advice to offer college students: “Make a plan early on; believe in yourself; surround yourself with the right people and practice serving others.”

Gibbes earned his undergraduate degree in accounting in 2009, followed by two master’s degrees – in business administration and public health in 2011. All came from USM.

Prior to his current position, Gibbes served Covington County Hospital as Clinic Director and was later promoted to Chief Operating Officer. Before joining Covington County Hospital, he served as Clinic Director at South Central Regional Medical Center in Laurel.

Dr. Lachel Story, Dean of the College of Nursing and Health Professions at USM, notes that public health graduates are uniquely positioned to assist with the response to crises like the current pandemic.

“The COVID pandemic has strained our nation, particularly our healthcare system,” said Story. “Public health graduates work in areas of epidemiology, health policy, and health education, to name just a few. These areas play a critical role in responding to and preventing pandemics.”

Story notes that in an effort to support the workforce needs, USM’s College of Nursing and Health Professions has recently developed two accelerated programs for individuals with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry or mathematics to earn a master’s in public health.

As front-line healthcare workers toil daily in the fight against COVID-19, hospital administrators seek strategies to ease the burden on their staffs, while continuing to provide the highest quality of care possible. Gibbes says he and his team have COVID-related discussions every day. Various topics include capacity, treatment methods, finance, transfer arrangement and testing.

“Covington County Hospital has a drive-thru COVID testing center in Collins next to the Civic Center, and we tested over 4,500 patients during the month of July,” said Gibbes. “About 15 percent of those tests were positive. Recently, we opened drive-thru testing centers in Sumrall and Taylorsville. We have plans to open testing centers in Magee and Mendenhall soon. We want to be proactive with giving our patients access to rapid testing with same-day results so that we can do our part to combat the virus’ spread.”

Besides the obvious physical toll imposed by the deadly virus, an equally significant emotional price is being paid by those dealing with COVID-19. As of August 14, Mississippi reported approximately 70,000 confirmed cases, with a little more than 2,000 deaths.

Gibbes says this unforeseen pandemic has been difficult to comprehend.

“On the one hand, I’ve had staff members that I was very close to pass away from the virus, and on the other end of the spectrum I know plenty of people who are asymptomatic and couldn’t understand how they tested positive,” he said. “A cautious approach is fundamental to controlling the spread, and that’s why everyone needs to be practicing good hand hygiene and protecting others by wearing a mask.”

Gibbes credits federal officials and members of the Mississippi Legislature for the financial assistance made available amid the COVID battle. Still, nothing could have prepared anyone for what has transpired since the virus made its first appearance on U.S. soil back in late January.

“I don’t think anyone could truthfully say that they wouldn’t expected anything like what we have seen in 2020,” said Gibbes. “We have tried to make the best decisions we can, given the circumstances, and have tried to imagine what the needs will be six months from now.”

Like his fellow healthcare professionals, as well as citizens across the United States, Gibbes is hopeful that eradication of this catastrophic virus will come much sooner than that.