Freeman closing its COVID-19 unit

Mar. 17—After three surges and scores of positive patients, the medical COVID-19 unit — one of two pandemic-related areas inside Freeman Hospital West — was decommissioned Tuesday morning.

With virus-related numbers continuing to drop across the region and the unit's last four patients discharged Monday, the 16-bed area — formerly a medical oncology unit — sat empty for the first time since its inception on July 16, 2020.

"It's been a crazy ride for sure," said Jeanee Kennedy, chief nursing officer with Freeman Health System, "but we're happy to see the numbers moving in the right direction and glad to see our community needs shifting away from COVID."

The unit cared for patients who tested positive for the coronavirus but required neither critical care nor the use of ventilators. At its peak, nurses were caring for 30 patients a day there.

"We were pretty slow going (at first) ... and then all at once it felt like COVID was in our area," Kennedy said, speaking about the early days of the pandemic, when Freeman doctors and nurses were concerned with keeping both the patients and the staff safe from the virus. "We were seeing a lot of patients at that time ... and we had some very sick and critical patients down here" in unit.

The hospital's other COVID-19 unit, an intensive care unit dubbed C-Zone, remains open, Kennedy said. The six-bed unit is currently caring for three patients. Patient volumes have decreased to a level that officials believe can be served in one combined unit.

The closed COVID-19 unit was undergoing an extensive cleaning Tuesday afternoon. All surfaces were being scrubbed, sanitized and swept over by high-powered ultraviolet lights. The area could open again — housing non-COVID-19 patients this time around — as early as Wednesday, Kennedy said.

"We certainly hope this is a permanent move," said Jeff Thompson, Freeman's chief clinical officer, about the unit's closure.

However, key COVID-19-related infrastructure, notably negative air pressure fans, will be stored nearby in case local numbers spike in the near future.

"We can very quickly convert this (area) back to a COVID unit whenever needed," he said. That conversion could be completed in a single 24-hour period.

For the nurses who have worked in the unit, there were plenty of smiles to go around, particularly when the last patient was wheeled out and the unit closed.

"Amazing" is how Chrisy Smith, a 16-year veteran registered nurse, described the ordeal over those long months.

"You definitely take it one day at a time; you lean on each other for support," she said.

Kyleigh Fordyce, also a registered nurse and director of the oncology unit, said she felt hopeful about the future.

"It was a long, long road — physically and mentally exhausting — but we're seeing a little bit of a light at the end of the tunnel, and we hope to keep that momentum going."

Dana Gibson, a registered nurse, was straight out of nursing school when COVID-19 first struck. "It was a very long, crazy experience. It was scary at first ... but I feel like I've learned a lot, ... and (I'm) grateful for the opportunity and glad to see this unit close."

While hospitalizations are at their lowest levels in months, Mercy Hospital Joplin officials said in a news release Tuesday that they don't have plans "to change the way we handle treating patients with COVID-19.

"We have repeatedly asked the people in our community to keep their guard up to help keep cases low, and we plan to do the same," according to the release.

The hospital reported eight COVID-19 inpatients Tuesday.

"We know the coronavirus is unpredictable," Mercy officials said, "and though we believe we're getting close, we are not beyond the pandemic."