McALLEN — As of Wednesday, the only way into McAllen Medical Center is through the automatic sliding doors that lead into the emergency room.

A hospital employee walks the halls of the McAllen Medical Center on Thursday, March 19, 2020, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

If you step through those doors, you’ll see a group of mask-clad hospital workers gathered around a table in the foyer outside the lobby. You can’t tell the struggle of their duty; just their eyes.

As soon as you walk in you’ll be ordered to gesture your hand under an automatic hand sanitizer dispenser before you’re asked a series of questions.

Then the questions start.

“Do you have fever, cough, running nose, sore throat or shortness of breath?” the orderlies ask. “Have you been in contact with someone who has ever, cough, running nose, sore throat or shortness of breath within the last 48 hours? Have you traveled to an affected, health alert county or U.S. zone within the last 14 days?”

Those questions determine whether you make it into the hospital’s lobby, part of the emergency plan that South Texas Health System has in place at all of its hospitals in the wake of COVID-19.

Hospitals within STHS had limited visitors for patients to two per day on Friday, March 13. Following further guidelines, STHS has suspended visitations to their facilities, with the exception of emergency department patients who are limited to one visitor. Once patients are taken to the inpatient unit, the visitor is not allowed to accompany the patient.

A maintenance worker seals a doorway to create a negative pressure area at the McAllen Medical Center on Thursday, March 19, 2020, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

If a patient’s visitor leaves, they are not allowed to return.

Exceptions will be made for certain compassionate care/end-of-life situations, as well as neonatal/pediatric patients. According to a news release, visitors will be limited to a specific room only.

“Visitors are allowed to bring the patient in and stay with the patient, but if they leave they cannot come back for emergency patients only,” said Doug Colburn, chief operating officer of McAllen Medical Center.

Hospital beds lay empty in a negative pressure area at the McAllen Medical Center on Thursday, March 19, 2020, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

Since the new rules have gone into effect, many hospital employees are experiencing a “culture change” compared to what they normally experience on a daily basis, according to Clinical Supervisor Jamie Rivera.

“We have a lot of family members who are worried about their patients, their families, their mothers, their fathers, their grandchildren, their grandparents,” Rivera said. “It’s just a matter of getting everybody acclimated. All the changes have been done for safety measures and to keep these patients who are at risk for developing future symptoms safer.”

The Rio Grande Valley medical community is actively preparing for COVID-19 while emphatically reminding the community to remain calm and wash hands thoroughly.

A resuscitation device hangs on the wall in a negative pressure area at the McAllen Medical Center on Thursday, March 19, 2020, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

A news conference was also held Thursday in which representatives from the UTRGV School of Medicine, DHR Health, South Texas Health System, Harlingen Medical Center, Knapp Medical Center, Mission Regional Medical Center, Rio Grande Regional Hospital, Valley Regional Medical Center, Starr County Memorial Hospital, and Valley Baptist Medical Center shared a unified message.

“All hospitals in the Rio Grande Valley, along with UTRGV School of Medicine, are dedicated to protecting the health and wellbeing of patients and healthcare teams as they work to minimize the impact of COVID-19 while serving as a calming voice for our communities,” Dr. Michael Dobbs, chief medical officer for the UTRGV School of Medicine, said during the news conference.

The representatives emphasized the need for the general public to follow the guidelines established by local, state and federal officials. They also reminded citizens to monitor the websites for their respective medical facilities in order to stay informed regarding visitation policies, such as those being implemented at MMC.

Doug Colburn, Chief Operating Officer of McAllen Medical Center, speaks about precautions for the coronavirus at the McAllen Medical Center on Thursday, March 19, 2020, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

“As of (Wednesday), we started with no visitors,” Taylor Fowers, director of administrative services for STHS, said. “We’ve been screening everyone that has come into the facility. We’ve reduced our entrances just to the ED. We have screeners there who will ask questions and make sure that they haven’t had any contact. If they’re here for care and they do have flu-like symptoms, we mask them immediately and send them to triage to be taken care of by the nursing staff. Otherwise, we have only allowed those who are essentially necessary to the operations of the hospital to continue to come in.”

Signs warn people not to enter medical work stations at the McAllen Medical Center on Thursday, March 19, 2020, in McAllen. (Joel Martinez | jmartinez@themonitor.com)

Any patient that may need to be admitted for suspected COVID-19 will be brought to the third floor of MMC, which has been completely cleared out in preparation for any potential patients. All non-COVID-19 patients currently reside in floors 4 through 7.

In the meantime, beeps from a telemetry unit echo through the empty halls of the third floor.

This is all just part of how MMC is preparing to combat the virus, along with daily COVID-19 task force meetings.

“It’s an empty floor, preparing for what might happen,” Colburn said. “Plan for the worst, but hope for the best.”

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Monitor staff writer Matthew Wilson contributed to this report.