Two and half months into the year, things were looking bright for Russell Medical. Then COVID-19 struck the country.

The profit center of elective procedures was taken away by the state as it sought to conserve personal protective equipment (PPE) and keep bed space available for a possible influx of patients suffering from the novel coronavirus.

Six weeks later, Russell Medical CEO Jim Peace said despite the financial losses, the healthcare system and Tallapoosa County will make a comeback. Earlier this week Peace shared the financial picture with the staff.

“We stood up our incident command for COVID-19 March 12 and saw our first positive case a week later on March 19,” Peace said. “The year had been going well financially. January, February and the first part of March were good. We ended up losing money in March and it looks like we will lose a little more than $1 million in April.”

Gov. Kay Ivey’s newest directive in response to stop the spread of the coronavirus allows healthcare facilities and providers to restart elective procedures, something Peace said will take time to get back to full capacity.

“We are ready to get things going again,” Peace said. “We are going to be slow and methodical about it.”

A team of medical providers has already been meeting to formulate a plan to reopen elective procedures with safety of patients and staff in mind first, but it will take a month or more to get back to full capacity, according to Peace.

“Our biggest thing is to protect the patients and our staff,” Peace said. “We will test all our employees and providers who work in that area. All patients will also be tested.”

While the latest help from Washington provides $10 billion in funding for rural healthcare, Peace said it is unknown how much of that will trickle down to Russell Medical. Peace said there are other programs to help but they’re not like stimulus funding.

“There are grant programs, but they are more like loans,” Peace said. “You can draw funding from future Medicare reimbursements but you still have to pay it back. It doesn’t offset costs. We would have another hill to climb.”

The idea with the program is a healthcare system can take payments now for future reimbursements. Basically Russell Medical could take the cash now for services it will provide in the future, but that’s something Peace doesn’t want to do.

“Congressman Mike Rogers (R-AL) is trying to work and see what will be coming our direction from the $10 billion,” Peace said.

Peace said healthcare providers at Russell Medical are starting to see more patients in person again, which is a positive sign. He also said patient visits to the emergency department seem to be returning to normal.

“We are still seeing some positive (COVID-19) tests,” Peace said. “Things are returning to average for this time of year with about 25% coming in with flu-like symptoms.”

Russell Medical has tested 143 positive cases and, as of Wednesday, has eight patients hospitalized with COVID-19 or COVID-19-like symptoms. While many of the cases of the coronavirus are a couple weeks old or associated with long-term care facilities, Peace said the new cases despite being low in number show it’s still a threat even as Ivey slowly relaxes restrictions.

“It’s still out there,” Peace said. “I hope people will be cautious as they get out and about. Just be careful about it. We can’t afford to have another wave.”

As the number of patients with flu-like symptoms drops, Peace said Russell Medical has started to open up polymerase chain reaction (PCR) testing and antibody testing for those in the community.

“The PCR tests is for those who think they might have the virus,” Peace said. “We started (Wednesday) opening it to the community and will do it as long as we have the supplies. For most it is covered by insurance. You can call your doctor and schedule it or come to the screening area at the emergency department.”

Peace said no matter the method, the nasal swab is administered at the emergency department and takes 36 to 48 hours to get the results.

Russell Medical is also offering an antibody test which is done with a blood sample and takes 24 hours to see if someone has been exposed to or has the antibodies to COVID-19. Peace said no insurance is covering the antibody test currently.

“(The cost) would purely be out of pocket,” Peace said. “We have asked Medicare, Medicaid and Blue Cross.”

Peace is hopeful fast testing will come to the state and Russell Medical.

“There is a five-minute test,” he said. “We have the equipment, just not the kits. Right now, Alabama does not have access to the kits.”

Cliff Williams is a staff writer for Tallapoosa Publishers.