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S.C. Hospital System Tells Non-COVID-19 Patients It's Safe To Return

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

For many hospitals, preparing for a surge of COVID-19 patients costs a whole lot of money. Some hospitals built the capacity. But the surge never came. And non-COVID patients stayed away. Stacey Vanek Smith is with our daily economics podcast The Indicator from Planet Money. And she's been tracking one hospital trying to convince people it is safe to come back.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

STACEY VANEK SMITH, BYLINE: About a month ago, we spoke with Dr. Patrick Cawley. He heads up the Medical University of South Carolina Health. It has over 17,000 doctors, nurses and other health care workers, and hospitals throughout the state. When we talked with him last month, he had just laid off 900 people.

PATRICK CAWLEY: And I would say it was the hardest decision I've ever had to make in my entire career.

VANEK SMITH: To prepare for the coronavirus pandemic, the hospital had to shut down the parts of its business that make the most money, the elective surgeries - like hip and knee replacements - and the procedures - like colonoscopies.

CAWLEY: In March, we lost $20 million. In April, we've lost a little more than $30 million.

VANEK SMITH: But Patrick had to get the hospital ready for a surge of coronavirus patients, which he was expecting to hit in late April. And yet the worst, the surge of patients, never actually came. How many COVID patients did you see at the peak?

CAWLEY: I would say, at our worst, we probably had a dozen patients.

VANEK SMITH: That's not very many.

CAWLEY: No.

VANEK SMITH: So now, Dr. Patrick Cawley wants to get the hospitals back in business. Patrick has opened elective surgeries back up. He's put a bunch of safety protocols in place. And...

CAWLEY: Everything's down - heart attacks coming into our emergency room, stroke patients coming into our emergency room. Everything is down.

VANEK SMITH: Chemo patients aren't coming in for treatment. Parents aren't bringing their kids in for vaccinations. Cancer screenings aren't happening. Patrick says people just don't seem to want to come to the hospital right now.

CAWLEY: I think it is - a lot has to do with the patients' perception of their own safety.

VANEK SMITH: Patrick is worried that people staying away from the hospital is not just hurting business, it's causing a big public health problem.

CAWLEY: So we spent the last several weeks preparing marketing material that we are a safe place.

VANEK SMITH: As part of this, Patrick and his team are airing ads to convince people that it's safe to come back to the hospital.

(SOUNDBITE OF AD)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We'd say we're open and ready to take care of you.

VANEK SMITH: And, Patrick says, it's starting to work.

CAWLEY: In the last week or two, I'm starting to see a path through all this. Surgeons and our procedure positions started to book cases. And the patients actually started to come.

VANEK SMITH: Patrick says they're back to about 80% of their normal business. And he's hoping he'll eventually be able to hire back the people he let go. Although, he says, business might not come back to some parts of the hospital at all.

CAWLEY: Our emergency rooms are still only seeing about 50 to 60% of what they saw before. People are not coming in the emergency rooms. And, you know, maybe the emergency room business is going to be smaller for us in the future. And maybe I don't need as many staff. I really don't know that at this point.

VANEK SMITH: In any case, Patrick says, he can't act too quickly because there's always a chance the surge will come. And above everything else, he has to be ready for that.

Stacey Vanek Smith, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF TYCHO'S "DIVISION") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.