Hospital leaders tackle pandemic at Business Journal’s 21st annual Health Care Conference

COVID-19 cases spiking throughout the North Bay in just the last few weeks has driven up hospital counts while the lingering pandemic creates high demand for doctor visits by video and a nagging concern people are putting off needed health care, leaders of five regional hospital leaders said Tuesday.

“We are very, very busy right now but not overwhelmed,” Dan Peterson, CEO at Sutter Santa Rosa Regional Hospital, stated at the Journal’s Health Care Conference, a free, virtual event. “We’ve seen a definite spike in July in COVID patients as well, which has put us back up just above our usual capacity, but we’re handing it well so far.”

The same holds true for Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, said Tyler Hedden, chief executive for St. Joseph Health Sonoma County.

Lee Domanico, CEO at MarinHealth Medical Center, has encountered a situation unique to his colleagues — one that made national news: the spike of COVID-19-infected prisoners at San Quentin State Prison that needed to be admitted to the hospital.

Unable to handle the surge alone, Domanico said the hospital leadership worked with the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation department and state representatives to help the prison better manage the outbreak. The prison ultimately set up a field hospital that has about 160 beds.

“That allows them to take care of patients there, keep them longer and then if they still need very acute care, they come to the hospital,” Domanico said, adding that also allows MarinHealth to discharge the prisoners sooner because they have a place to return to. “Frankly, what started off as a potential disaster is now being well managed.”

Domanico said MarinHealth partnered with Kaiser Permanente in San Rafael and Sutter Health’s Novato Community Hospital to rotate admitting prisoners that were COVID-19 positive.

“The prison responded, they were under the microscope,” he said, “and the providers worked together to handle it here in Marin.”

The bigger concern now, he said, is the shared problem of community spread.

The speakers emphasized the importance of adherence to wearing masks, and all addressed testing for the novel coronavirus and turnaround time in getting results.

Kaiser Permanente has set up drive-through testing at its facilities both in Sonoma County and Marin County, said Tarek Salaway, Kaiser Permanente senior vice president and area manager, Marin-Sonoma service area.

Hedden said Santa Rosa Memorial has an outpatient testing clinic that can quickly turn around results sometimes as quick as one hour.

Results used to come quickly at Aurora, but that is no longer the case, said Susan Rose, CEO, Northern California Behavioral Health System for Aurora Behavioral Health Hospital.

“What I’m seeing right now is that our employees are starting to come down with signs and symptoms of COVID,” she said. “Now the tests are taking up to 10 days, so we’re unable to let our staff return to the facility for a 10-day period of time and that’s a significant toll on our hospital.”

On the other hand, one of the successes at Aurora, Rose noted, is that 95% of its psychiatrists are now seeing patients through telehealth visits, helping offset the hospital having had to temporarily close its outpatient services department.

The embracement of telehealth was shared across the hospital leaders participating in the health care conference.

“We’ve been really pioneering telemedicine for many, many years and so we’ve really just ratcheted that up” to about more than 95%, Salaway said. “That’s working quite effectively for us in terms of maintaining connectivity with our patients, ensuring therapeutic adherence is ongoing no matter what their chronic condition is, or how we manage COVID-19 as well.”

Peterson raised the concern that early on, when hospitals were decreasing elective surgeries, he noticed people began putting off their preventive care.

“While that may work for a month or two, it’s really scary to think about someone putting off something like, say a colonoscopy,” he said. “We need to be able to preserve our capacity to do those things as well, and still at the same time be ready for a serious emergency.”

The Business Journal’s Health Care Conference was co-hosted by Western Health Advantage. Sutter Health was the underwriter, and Kaiser Permanente; Marin Healthcare District and St. Joseph Health were the major sponsors.

Staff Writer Cheryl Sarfaty covers tourism, hospitality, health care and education. Reach her at or 707-521-4259.