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Dickinson County Healthcare System endures through virus, cyberattack

Dickinson County Memorial Hospital is shown. (Theresa Proudfit/Daily News photo)

IRON MOUNTAIN — Dealing with a recent cyberattack during a spike in COVID-19 cases, Dickinson County Healthcare System officials on Thursday applauded staff efforts that have kept the hospital on a even keel.

“I can’t say enough about the way the team responded,” CEO Chuck Nelson told the hospital board during a Zoom meeting. “Everyone did a tremendous job.”

Although the computer system is mostly restored after the Oct. 17 cyberattack, the coronavirus remains a threat, he said, adding, “COVID isn’t going away anytime soon.”

According to the Dickinson-Iron District Health Department, the virus has been linked to 27 deaths in Dickinson County, including 22 since mid-October.

Sue Hadley, DCH director of nursing, said a COVID-19 committee meets daily and is making preliminary plans to accommodate the storage of virus vaccines. There are six COVID-19 patients at the hospital, including two in intensive care, she said.

In recent weeks, the hospital has expanded its COVID-19 wing from four beds to 12. The quarantined treatment area was set up this spring with 18 beds, and that capacity remains, Hadley noted.

No patients have been turned away from DCH for lack of space, she said, although some have been transferred to other facilities depending on their needs.

Adrienne Chase, compliance officer, said 95% of the hospital’s electronic records have been fully restored in the wake of the cyberattack, which she described as a case of “bad actors” compromising the system.

No ransom was paid. Information was only frozen, not removed, Chase said.

DCH had insurance coverage to put the recovery process into motion and some employees worked around the clock. Hospital operations continued under a contingency plan, using paper records.

Computer functions were at least partially restored within seven days, well ahead of the industry norm, Chase said.

“We’re still in the incident,” she said. A forensics report will likely be completed in early December as the FBI and Michigan’s cybersecurity office are part of the investigation. Meanwhile, extra security functions are being implemented.

As of late October, a total of 59 U.S. health care providers or systems had been affected by ransomware in 2020, disrupting patient care at up to 510 facilities, according to the cybersecurity firm Emsisoft. The U.S. has seen a plague of ransomware over the past year, with cities and schools among the targets.

Trustee David Holmes said DCH employees have done “an outstanding job” of planning since the onset of the pandemic. In recent weeks, he said, the staff has also demonstrated “strength at a time of crisis.”

Nelson noted that at least some coverage for lost income is included in the cyber security insurance plan.

In discussing preparations for a COVID-19 vaccine, Hadley pointed out that Pfizer’s doses would need to be stored at minus 70 degrees Celsius, while Moderna’s candidate is more suitable for a regular freezer.

With some enhancements, DCH may have enough freezer capacity to serve as a virus distribution hub, she said. The hospital is engaged as well in prioritizing the administration of vaccines for front-line workers.

The FDA for now has not approved or authorized a vaccine to prevent COVID-19. With emergency approval, Pfizer has said it may have enough vaccine for up to 12.5 million people in the U.S. by the end of the year.

The Dickinson County Hospital Foundation could help pay the expense of preparing the freezer, said Tamara Juul, foundation executive director.

In other action, the board:

≤ Heard Nelson report that U.S. Department of Agriculture officials continue to offer “positive responses” to the hospital’s application for a $16.9 million Rural Development loan, although no final approval has been given. A decision may be possible by the end of the year, he said.

≤ Received an update from Joe Rizzo, director of public relations, on the hospital’s annual free community Thanksgiving meal, which will be provided as a frozen dinner Wednesday. Today from 8 to 10 a.m. is the last chance to reserve meals for delivery or takeout by calling 906-776-5320. The 20-year tradition of a community meal was in jeopardy this year due to COVID-19, but the DCH Activities Committee managed to improvise, Rizzo said.

≤ Heard County Commissioner Joe Stevens, a liaison to the board, praise DCH for weathering its recent challenges while also achieving 101 days of cash on hand — compared to just 26 days two years ago.

≤ Accepted an October report presented by Trustee Jeff Campbell, finance chairman, but with no figures yet shared. Campbell acknowledged a loss for the month,but said some monies could be recovered through insurance. There also was a one-time charge for an additional payment into the pension plan, he said.

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