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Picayune hospital found itself in the center of COVID storm

Updated: May. 5, 2020 at 6:17 PM CDT
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PICAYUNE, Miss. (WLOX) - Highland Community Hospital in Picayune became an unexpected hot spot for COVID-19 in March and April.

The staff at the small hospital rose to the challenge as their coronavirus caseload increased.

Now, they are looking at a downward trend.

“This has been one of the most trying times I’ve seen, mainly because of the unknown,” said Kevin Hedgepeth, director of acute care at the 49-bed hospital in Pearl River County. He is a registered nurse with 31 years of emergency care experience, so those words don’t come lightly.

Hedgepeth said in other mass casualty situations, you know there’s help outside there to come. But because everybody has been affected by the coronavirus, “the comfort of help coming from somewhere else wasn’t necessarily there.”

Their first COVID-positive patient arrived on March 13, and things quickly got hectic.

“It started pretty quickly for us, and I would say over the next two weeks when we really started to ramp up,” he said. "It got up to 11 patients at one time, and I believe there were seven on the ventilator at one time during that period, which is normally for a six-bed ICU we were pretty taxed at that point. "

Hedgepeth said he and some of his staff worked 28 days straight.

They had expanded their ICU from six to 13 beds and received additional ventilators from Forrest General Hospital, so they were never in danger of running out of critical supplies. Every department’s staff helped out in acute care and met every challenge.

“The staff stayed focused,” he said, “and I’m talking housekeeping, dietary, nurses, doctors, physical therapists, occupational therapists doing a great job.”

Hedgepeth said his main challenge was making sure the staff had proper PPE to protect the staff and their family.

One nurse contracted COVID, but has made a full recovery.

Throughout the weeks, the community has also contributed by providing home-made masks and other PPE, meals and general moral support for the hospital’s staff. Tuesday’s flyover by the Keesler Air Force Base’s 403rd Wing was a special tribute.

On Tuesday, May 5 starting at 2:00 p.m., Keesler Air Force Base will have the Hercs for Heroes flyby honoring healthcare...

Posted by Highland Community Hospital on Monday, May 4, 2020

“It’s been tough for all of us to stay positive, but as we work toward seeing a downward trend, we’re all positive about that,” he said.

Good news is welcome in a county that has seen 183 confirmed cases of COVID-19 and the highest number of deaths in the six southern counties at 20.

Their positive trend began in mid-April, and they celebrated discharging their first ventilated patient last weekend. The hospital only has 5 COVID patients Tuesday, and they look forward to discharging two more patients this week who had spent considerable time on ventilators.

“That is a huge plus this week," he said. "So we’re hoping that’s a very positive trend, and that’s been going on over the weekend into today.”

Hospital workers don’t know why Pearl River County had such a high number of cases, but the proximity to Louisiana with a possible link to Mardi Gras is among the theories.

Hedgepeth said he wanted to encourage older members of the population and those with contributing health factors to be careful in crowds and to wear a mask.

He recently went to visit his 82-year-old mother from a distance. He said he looks forward to the day he can abandon the cautions that have kept them all healthy during these times.

“I haven’t had a good hug in a couple of months,” he said.

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