Motorcycle Rally Has Nurses Bracing for Potential Coronavirus Surge

South Dakota has been relatively unscathed by the coronavirus pandemic to date — but that could change. Thousands of bikers from across the country are now attending the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally 2020, boosting its risk of becoming a superspreader event.

During previous rallies, helmetless bikers injured in crashes have kept local emergency rooms busy. This year, the many maskless motorcyclists may pose a more insidious threat. Next week, when the rally ends and bikers leave, an influx of COVID-19 cases could show up in their dust.

Whatever happens, local hospitals are well-prepared to take care of every patient, says Angie Dahlke, nursing director at Monument Health Sturgis Hospital and Clinic.

Well-Oiled Machine

“A well-oiled machine.” “Gearing up for extra traffic.” No, Dahlke isn’t describing a motorcycle — she’s talking about the hospital’s readiness for the influx of patients from the rally and triple the normal traffic in the emergency room.

The hospital itself is located almost in the midst of the rally. “There are motorcycles going by pretty much 24/7, because we’re right off the interstate and right at the exit where people are coming into town,” Dahlke says. Fortunately, she adds, there is some space between the hospital and its entry road, providing sleeping patients with some insulation from the continual roar of engines.

[Read: School Nurses Strive to Protect Students and Staff as COVID-19 Surges.]

Rallying to Provide Care

Dahlke has been working in Sturgis for the past three years, and before that, about 30 miles away in Rapid City. “The rally has been an event for me every year for the past 22 years,” she says. “So that part is pretty much routine. This is what we do — we plan for a big event like this.”

Although Dahlke is a rally health care veteran, she’s a pandemic novice, like the vast majority of her colleagues. However, she says, when the city made the decision to move forward with this year’s rally, hospitals in the Monument system were ready to support any health care needs that arose.

“When they said that the rally was on, we immediately went into our planning mode,” Dahlke says. That was in addition to COVID-19 preparations already occurring since March.

At that time, like the rest of the country, South Dakota was bracing for a pandemic surge. Fortunately, so far, the state has seen slightly less than 10,000 cases. As the August rally approached, Dahlke says, her team incorporated the possibility of a COVID-19 influx into readiness planning.

Any outbreak, whatever the cause, is a concern. “We’ve been doing ongoing preparation related to infectious diseases and really had a focus on looking at potential pathogens that could come in,” Dahlke says. “We’re always trying to make sure we have the proper equipment, the proper precautions in place should something walk through our doors. But as far as actually being in the midst of a pandemic — this is a first for me.”

[Read: EMT in COVID-19 Hot Zone: ‘I Know I’m Needed.’]

Empty Beds Waiting

Monument Health Sturgis Hospital is a 25-bed critical access hospital. The CAH designation for eligible rural hospitals, given by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, is part of an effort to improve access to health care and keep essential services in rural communities.

Based in Rapid City, the Monument Health system, a member of the Mayo Clinic Care Network, serves 20 communities across western South Dakota and in eastern Wyoming. The system encompasses five hospitals in addition to multiple other health care facilities.

If a post-rally surge should develop in South Dakota, 172 new empty beds are available and dedicated to COVID-19 patients at Monument Health Rapid City Hospital, says Stephany Chalberg, a spokesperson for the health care system.

“We were very fortunate that we were in the middle of a construction project, so we had some shell space that was open, which is a rare, lucky thing to have at this time,'” Chalberg says. “So we were able to create those beds in about two weeks.”

Initially, the COVID-19 surge for South Dakota was predicted to occur around May, Chalberg says, although that prediction kept getting pushed back. Even so, the Monument Health system was ready by early March, she says.

The system has been working closely with the governor’s office in Pierre, South Dakota, and the state department of health, Chalberg adds. “We have a surge plan as a state that would have met that initial peak.”

[Read: Dr. Sanjay Gupta — Holding America’s Hand Through the Pandemic.]

Rally Aftermath

Preventing COVID-19 transmission is a priority for every health care facility. Identifying new cases early is another important focus.

Sturgis is conducting mass COVID-19 testing, beginning the week after the rally, with support from Monument Health. “The city will have identified the different vendors, employees, city staff and rally staff who will be able to get a test,” Chalberg says, with 1,300 tests to be completed.

While the rally goes on, the hospital is going the extra mile, Dahlke says. Clinic and surgery staff members, cross-trained both in anticipation of COVID-19 and to manage the increased patient flow from the rally, are putting that training to use.

The hospital’s primary care clinic is temporarily shut down to shift staff to where they’re most needed. Advanced practice nurses and physician assistants are jumping over to urgent care. Emergency room nurses are taking on added shifts. Traveling, or locum, physicians are providing coverage along with staff physicians in the ER.

“At Sturgis, being a small hospital, we all wear many hats,” Dahlke says. “As a leader, it’s just being there for your team, being willing to put those scrubs on, being there at their sides, supporting them and being part of it.”

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