CHEYENNE – With more than twice as many COVID-19 patients at Cheyenne Regional Medical Center this week as a month ago, the federal medical officials who arrived at the hospital last week couldn’t have done so at a better time.

The Disaster Medical Assistance Team from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ National Disaster Medical System – comprised of nurses, physician assistants, logisticians and an operational coordinator – arrived at CRMC on Nov. 19, just a day before CRMC had a record number of COVID-19 patients, with 60 in total.

“Their timing has been really good in that they arrived really at our peak moment,” CRMC President Tim Thornell said Wednesday. “Today, for example, we have 50 (patients with COVID-19), which is still a large number, but to get there at our peak moment and to provide that visible sign of relief to our staff has been really encouraging and reassuring for them.”

In total, the federal team at CRMC includes 16 medical officials, all of whom have helped monitor the hospital’s COVID-19 units. Lynn Hayes, the commander for the team at CRMC, said their mission has been to give “a much-needed respite” to hospital staff, many of whom have been working overtime shifts for months.

“It’s very gratifying, and it’s an honor to be able to come in and assist, especially over Thanksgiving,” Hayes said. “It really shows what you have to be thankful for, and for us to be able to come in and be able to provide a little relief for the staff, that’s our main motivation for doing this.”

Their work at CRMC marks the team’s fifth deployment since the COVID-19 pandemic began earlier this year. Their first mission was to help with the quarantining of travelers on the Grand Princess cruise ship off the coast of California in March, and, since then, Hayes and her team have made stops in New York and Texas.

“We have two-week deployments, so we work 12-hour shifts for the duration that we’re here,” Hayes said. “We’re very flexible. … Every mission has been a little different.”

Though the two-week deployment means her team plans to have its final shifts at CRMC on Dec. 1, more medical personnel will be arriving there soon, largely thanks to federal stimulus funds deployed by Gov. Mark Gordon earlier this month. The $10 million in funding has allowed the Wyoming Hospital Association to contract with an agency to provide traveling health care professionals to hospitals in the coming weeks and months.

After an initial round of five traveling nurses recently arrived at CRMC, Thornell said the hospital was expecting an additional 15 to get to Cheyenne next week. The traveling personnel tends to stay a bit longer, for about 10 to 13 weeks.

“Depending on what the future holds, (the temporary staff) will either be providing some well-deserved relief for our staff who have been working overtime this whole time and give them a chance to recharge their batteries so they can continue in the long term,” Thornell said, “or, if things get worse, which we’re not hoping for, they’ll just be there to keep things going. So either way, we need them.”

The backup will arrive as staffing levels at CRMC have continued to take a hit from community spread of COVID-19. Thornell said 90 employees at CRMC, more than half of whom are clinical staff, have quarantining this week due to possible exposure to the virus.

The hospital also gained a boost from the Wyoming National Guard, which deployed a handful of its members last week to help with certain tasks, such as delivering meals, that would normally be a part of the nurses’ workload. The guard members will be deployed until at least mid-December.

In the meantime, Thornell said he expects CRMC to hover around 50 hospitalizations related to COVID-19, though the biggest unknown is how the holidays will affect case numbers nationwide.

“If too many people get together in too large of groups (for Thanksgiving), the chance of it spreading more continues, so this peak we’re experiencing may not subside right away,” Thornell said. “So that’s our immediate concern, then on the heels of that, you have Christmas right around the corner.”

The unpredictable nature of the next few months means health officials at CRMC will continue what they’ve been doing: prepare for every scenario.

“If we didn’t have this help, if we didn’t plan ahead, if we weren’t able to do just a few things, we’d be overrun, we’d be transferring patients out – it would not be a pretty sight,” Thornell said. “It’s bad (right now), but it could’ve been so much worse if we didn’t do what we were supposed to do.”

Tom Coulter is the Wyoming Tribune Eagle’s state government reporter. He can be reached at tcoulter@wyomingnews.com or 307-633-3124. Follow him on Twitter at @tomcoulter_.

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