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Medical Community In Rural Elko Credits Teamwork In COVID Fight

Courtesy Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital
Courtesy Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital

Elko's 75-bed Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital is the biggest hospital in the 500 miles between Reno and Salt Lake City.

The medical community in remote Elko County — about 400 miles north of Las Vegas — pulled together by necessity during the pandemic.

UNR medical residents staffed hotline phone banks during the shutdowns in early 2020, said Gerald Ackerman, assistant dean for rural programs at UNR's medical school. 

The residents are part of the Elko Family Medicine Residency Program, where medical students train by seeing primary-care patients at a Nevada Health Centers-run clinic in Elko.

Ackerman explained that since the med school programs had shut down, like all schools at the beginning of the pandemic, the students pivoted to operating the hotline.

“It’s been a tremendous service opportunity," he said "It’s been tremendous to be in the community and to be an active participant along with the community faculty that are here.”

Steve Burrows is the director of community relations in Elko's Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital. The 75-bed facility is the largest hospital in the 500 miles between Reno and Salt Lake City. 

He said at the beginning of the pandemic many people in the community were not sure if the virus would actually really reach Elko and whether they should even take it seriously. 

“I think our community learned – yes, we need to take it very seriously,” he said.

Now, almost a year into the pandemic, Burrows said it has put a strain on the hospital and its staff.

“It’s been a much longer haul, I think, than anyone really anticipated. Day in day out to be living with COVID-19,” he said.

No one working in the hospital has died from COVID-19, but there have been several cases in the staff.

In addition, the pandemic has taken a financial toll on the hospital. Burrows explained that at the beginning of the pandemic, the hospital stopped all elective surgeries and only allowed medically necessary surgeries.

It has slowly - and safely - started to allow more surgeries, but some people are still not seeking care.

“I think health care systems across the nation have seen an alarming trend of folks delaying care, especially necessary care and even emergent care, and that has been one message that we’ve really tried to get out to the community is: don’t delay your care. It is safe to come to the hospital,” he said.

Now, the hospital has expanded its mission to be part of the state's vaccination efforts.

Burrows said when the hospital first started offering vaccines for people outside of medical professionals there was a lot of eagerness by the general population.

“When we were able to open it up to 70 years and older and we had a huge response," he said, "That population was very eager to come in.”

He believes when they open the vaccinations to the next tier, which is people 65 and older, they will also get a large response. They are hoping to go into the next tier - people 16 to 64 with underlying health conditions, disabled people and those experiencing homelessness - in February.

Ackerman noted that most hospitals like Elko’s Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital usually aren't vaccination distributors.

“Now they’ve stepped up, and they are taking care of the community in ways that this community needs, and it’s been tremendous.”

He said other rural hospitals and health care providers have also moved into roles they are not used to performing all in an effort to protect their communities from the virus.

“They’re doing, I think, remarkably well. They’ve stepped up to meet the challenge," he said.

Ackerman said Nevadans should be proud of everyone in the health care field, from hospital administrators to cleaning staff for their efforts during a very difficult time.

“Even though this has been a struggle, we’ve really had some people step up and do remarkable things.”

Elko County, in the far northeast corner of the state, has about 55,000 people and has suffered almost 50 COVID-19-related deaths.

Gerald Ackerman, assistant dean for rural programs, UNR Med; Steve Burrows, director of community relations, Northeastern Nevada Regional Hospital


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