As of noon Friday, Phoebe’s COVID-19 numbers included 97 patients at Phoebe Putney Memorial Hospital in Albany.

LEESBURG – Lee County Commissioner Rick Muggridge called Phoebe Putney Health System President/CEO Scott Steiner’s presentation to the Lee County Commission Tuesday night “unprecedented.”

“I just want to thank you,” Muggridge said following Steiner’s presentation. “I’ve been on the commission for 10 years, and nobody from Phoebe has been here before. Your being here speaks volumes for you reaching out to all of your service areas. So, once again, a heartfelt thanks.”

Steiner began his presentation with an update on the preceding 220 days of community involvement with COVID-19.

“As a region, the past seven plus months have been incredible,” he said. “On the 27th of March, southwest Georgia was the fourth-hottest hot spot in the world behind Wuhan, China, the Lombardi Province of Italy, and New York City. Albany, Georgia — really southwest Georgia — was No. 4. The only reason we were able to prevail, and we don’t use that word lightly, is because we did it together as a community, as the southwest Georgia community. We thank you for that.”

Steiner told commissioners that he was there to talk about more than the coronavirus, but the numbers for Phoebe and southwest Georgia were impressive.

“These are just some of the numbers,” he said. “You know we are obsessed today with some of these numbers. But we set up a hotline within three days back in March, and it has handled 16,855 calls. We opened a drive-thru testing site and have tested more than 36,000 people. This testing identified 4,583 positive cases, and 1,617 of those were admitted to the hospital.

“There’s the conversation that if you test more, you’re going to find more. That’s true, but what we are most interested in is how many of those people that need (it get) admission to a health care organization because they need that support. During the past 220 days, Phoebe used more than 585,000 masks, 10.3 million gloves, and almost 240,000 isolation gowns.”

Steiner credited community support and teamwork with the region’s current status related to COVID.

“We don’t know what is coming to our part of the world,” he said. “It’s interesting today that the rest of the United States or much of it is surging and we’re not. I’d love to be able to tell you the reason why and guarantee that we won’t in the future. The virus is interesting. Its behavior is interesting, and we will learn much of it as time goes on so we do not repeat the mistakes perhaps as we made as a nation and an industry.”

Steiner acknowledged that although the virus dominates the conversation across the nation, it was not the primary reason he was addressing the commission. He said he was also there to talk to them about Phoebe and its health care system and how that related to the citizens of Lee County. Despite the pandemic, he said, Phoebe is thriving and growing.

“When we separate it out, Lee County, by the numbers, we have just under a thousand Lee County citizens employed by Phoebe, whether at the hospital in Sumter or Dougherty county,” he said. “Ninety-four million dollars in payroll goes to the 997 folks that reside in Lee County. These figures make Phoebe Putney the largest employer for the citizens of Lee County.”

Steiner went on to explain that the benefits to the region go beyond payroll. The fact that Phoebe is a tax-exempt organization, which he said is the case for most hospitals, requires them to provide free care for those who qualify for indigent care.

“It is an application process; you can’t just walk in and say, ‘Oh want this,’” he said. “It requires proof of income and a number of different thresholds. But last year, we provided $28 million in charity care. Those are true costs, not necessarily charges. About $2.6 million of that was for Lee County citizens. You can see most of it is in Dougherty County, but people in there are people from Alabama and people from Florida and all parts of Georgia that qualify for charity care. As a tax-exempt organization, we are privileged to be able to provide that.”

The health system CEO explained that for hospitals to be effective in the communities they serve, they must provide the right care, at the right place, at the right time, at the right price. In an effort to achieve these goals, Phoebe is initiating a number of actions, he said. One of the first is the Phoebe Foundation’s purchase of two mobile health centers capable of delivering health care services to the community. They are capable of taking physicians and other health care providers into the community, providing services where people live and work, providing care ranging from prenatal care to mammograms to MRIs to immunizations.

“We’re excited to announce that we have purchased a piece of property on (U.S.) Highway 19 next, to Chic-fil-a in front of the Publix and are going to be putting an Urgent Care Center in,” Steiner said. “We expect to hopefully break ground some time in January. We are looking forward to that location again providing the right care, at the right location, at the right cost, for extend hours and weekends.”

He noted that many lessons learned from COVID would be implemented there, including drive-thru services, after-hours and weekend services, and tele-medicine.

When it comes to cost Phoebe, is addressing the issue in a number of ways, Steiner told the Lee Commission.

“Our community care clinic right next to our ER will provide for those that maybe don’t have a true emergency but need to be cared for at that moment, or that day,” he said. “They can get care there at that community care clinic for a fraction of the cost. We estimate for the almost four years it’s been running, we have saved community members about $56 million by having care at that location versus at the ER. Which is the highest-cost service we have.

“Of course, we staff it for traumas, heart attacks or strokes, whether they come in or may not come in. But we have to staff it accordingly.”

Steiner explained how a Residency program started by Phoebe more than 25 years ago with the goal of bringing family care providers to southwest Georgia was now paying off with more than 72 percent of the 125 graduates now practicing in the region.

He said he hopes similar programs can be established to address the growing nursing shortage. He said that prior to COVID-19, there was already a shortage of approximately 200,000 nurses in the United States, and it was estimated that without a solution that number would grow to more than 500,000 by 2030. At that point, there would be a shortage of 50,000 nurses in Georgia.

Phoebe is currently partnering with area colleges ABAC, Albany State, Albany Tech, Andrew College and Georgia Southwestern to try and fill the need.

Phoebe recently completed a 22,000-square-foot simulation center with areas equipped as ICU and OR facilities. High-fidelity mannequins that talk, breathe and blink allow students to learn and practice in a realistic environment.

Lee County High School has eight students in a program utilizing the facilities and training at the hospital.

“They do 5-15 hours a week,” Steiner said. “I see them quite a bit when I’m up there. They have nice, bright, red Lee County logo scrubs. They look great, and they are doing a fantastic jobs. These students have indicated they want to go into health care; they want to go to college and this is a career they want to pursue. We hope all eight want to come back and work forus as nurses, therapists doctors. We are interested in having them come work for Phoebe.”

Phoebe has applied for Level II trauma status to fill the void left by Archibald Hospital in Thomasville giving up their Level II rating, Steiner told the board. That leaves Macon and Tallahassee, Fla., as the only sites available for residents of southwest Georgia. Just like a heart attack or stroke, time matters. Steiner explained that the “Golden Hour” (in which treatment is vital) applies to trauma as well.

Steiner also said that Phoebe is undertaking a variety of steps to increase its capacity and quality of care. The north campus in Albany at the former Palmyra site was used to handle COVID surge and is now being considered for use as a skilled nurses center, a site for long-term care and possibly in-patient rehabilitation.

Steiner also explained that there is a regular need to update the current operating rooms so that they continue to serve as state-ot-the-art facilities. This routinely requires investments from $10 million to $200 million.

Following Steiner’s presentation, Muggridge not only thanked the health system CEO for coming but asked a number of questions relating to Lee County’s opportunities in moving forward with Phoebe’s efforts in the county.

“One of the things we dream about for Lee County is to have an institution of higher education with a campus in our political boundaries,” Muggridge said. He asked Steiner about the possibility of partnering with Andrew College.

Steiner responded that if it would help bring in nurses, therapists and other staff he was all in.

“Phoebe Putney needs 250 nurses today,” Steiner said. “If we had them, I would hire every one of them and then ask you for a hundred more every year thereafter. There is quite a need. If you can imagine, they are good-paying jobs with good benefits, and these people will need houses and places to shop.”

He explained that Phoebe is currently paying a company to provide 250 traveling nurses at an annual cost of $220 million dollars, which he would rather see stay in the region.

Early in his presentation, Steiner credited partnerships and teamwork as keys to the hospital system’s success in treating COVID. In regard to the efforts to grow and serve Lee County, he said he sees the same need.

“That’s our mantra: ‘Together we rise,’” he said. “And that certainly is the case with Lee County.”

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