Blount Memorial Hospital Cancer Center

Blount Memorial Hospital’s COVID-19 tent sits between the Cancer Center entrance and the emergency room. The hospital has furloughed more than 200 employees due to a lack of inpatients during COVID-19.

COVID-19 has touched many employment landscapes throughout the county and Blount Memorial Hospital is no exception.

Hospital spokesman Josh West confirmed in a statement emailed to The Daily Times that the facility had furloughed 211 employees as of Thursday because of low patient volume.

On April 22, there were only 86 inpatients at the main campus, 43% less than the same day in 2019.

Additionally, though the hospital for the month had 753 inpatients by April 22, 2019, they had only 457 in total for this month by Thursday.

“We, like most hospitals in our region, have been operating at roughly 50 percent capacity,” Chief Medical Officer Dr. Harold Naramore wrote in an email.

Hospitals not in “hot spot” areas are seeing similar shifts in numbers: COVID-19 patients have overwhelmed some facilities while others — especially in rural areas — have seen a sharp decline in admissions.

That’s partially because Gov. Bill Lee banned elective procedures in a March 23 executive order.

“But stopping elective procedures doesn’t just affect the surgery department itself,” Naramore said. “It also affects many other areas of a hospital’s operations. Downstream, it impacts volumes, or traffic in a number of areas, from the registration process, to the lab and radiology testing that’s often required prior to surgery, even to the meals that are delivered to patients who are required to stay overnight.”

BMH intends to fully comply with the governor’s orders, according to the hospital statement, which is why the facility has stayed away from elective procedures for the time being.

Employees using PTO while furloughed

Decreased numbers of inpatients is not specific to COVID-19, Naramore explained. But right now, the hospital is furloughing employees based on need.

That’s pushing many to dip into their accumulated paid-time-off hours in order to continue receiving paychecks.

“We have developed a way for our affected employees to receive an advancement of PTO of up to 80 hours,” Naramore said.

Employees also have the option to share or donate PTO among themselves so that people with more time could give saved-up hours to people without any.

BMH also is allowing some employees to switch duties from their traditional jobs to other roles throughout the facility. Those roles including making personal protective equipment or operating screening stations.

Naramore said people affected by layoffs have “played a very important role” in helping the hospital prepare for the effects of the pandemic.

“We don’t want this situation to negatively affect any of our employees,” BMH CEO Don Heinemann said. “Even though you see many hospitals having to send people home or eliminate positions permanently, we’re doing our best to keep them working. Our employees have families and others who depend on them, just as our employee family depends on the hospital, and as our local economy depends on the hospital’s employment.”

‘Sooner rather than later’

Regardless, some have chosen to use their PTO or take time off without pay.

Some sources close to the furloughing said they were not given any documentation on how to manage the loss of work.

According to the hospital’s statement, BMH is “providing appropriate guidance and documents based on every employee’s situation, as not every employee affected needs the same letter or document.”

Furloughed benefit-eligible employees will not lose access to those benefits and Heinemann said they have been offered deferral of monthly premiums until they return to work.

But there is no specific timeline on when employees will be able to resume their former duties.

According to the statement, BMH is waiting on more information from the governor on resuming elective procedures and said that returning to work will vary for every employee.

“We hope and anticipate that for most, if not all, it will be sooner rather than later,” spokesman West said.

BMH is the third-largest employer in Blount County. As of Feb. 19, the group employed 2,616 throughout its various facilities.

Follow @arjonesreports on Facebook and Twitter for more from city government reporter Andrew Jones.

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