For Henderson Health Care, time has felt elusive over the past year. Slightly before the general public was awakening to potential virus impacts locally, HHC had already initiated preparation for COVID-19 last February. A dreadful type of scenario studied in medical textbooks and healthcare training was actually coming to fruition.
Facing anticipation and uncertainty of what was ahead, the time quickly turned stressful. Within weeks, there was an onslaught on training, resources, webinars, and evolving regulations. A COVID Action Plan was required from facilities, and ten employees at HHC were pulled with pandemic preparation as their main duty. In mid-March came the decision to close the doors to long-term care and assisted living in order to protect the most vulnerable population. The hospital also went through periods of closure to visitors. Infection Preventionist Chelsea Wilcox remembers the struggle between planning while facing a shortage of supplies. Items such as nasal swabs, necessary to test for the virus (with results in 5-7 days at that time), were scarce. This led her, along with others, to resourcefulness in what could be done by making their own face shields and masks.
Another aspect of preparation included creating a clinical team, a financial team, and an operations team to manage the various dynamics of the situation. Caring for the workers was crucial to be able to extend care to the community. This meant that churches and individuals had to intervene providing childcare for healthcare workers as daycares battled exposures and quarantines. Employees also volunteered to cross-train job skills so that if HHC was short workers in one department, they would have backups in place to fill voids. Internal communication was heightened to keep track of any possible exposures.
An ethics meeting was also held with community pastors to discuss the difficult end-of-life issues that could lie ahead. Months later, it would be these plans and scenarios that would equip healthcare providers as they faced heart-wrenching situations.
The first confirmed staff case at Henderson Health Care came in May from a traceable outside exposure. While there were a few local cases, the summer continued to be focused on education and preparation. It was time well-invested as the local storm was still on the horizon.
A glance at Nebraska’s COVID Dashboard reveals a spike in cases in October. This was definitely felt at HHC. Chelsea described that during that period, they were testing 25-35 people per day with a 75-80% positivity rate.
When asked about the fall season, CEO Cheryl Brown reflectively paused as she said, “It’s hard to find the words for that time.” Mirroring the high infection rates of the area, the virus was also detected moving through Legacy Square. “We declared a crisis and had to move to alternative staffing plans. Nurses from the hospital care over to help in the nursing home and the staffing crisis lasted for 30 days.” As laborious as the time was, they did not have any residents hospitalized and there were no deaths from those in the care center. Compared to devastating experiences in neighboring facilities, it felt miraculous.
As the spread continued in the state, however, the hospital saw exigent days. As best possible, COVID patients were strategically placed as they received the care they needed while protecting the other patients. Due to the fact that HHC does not have any ventilators (which require specialized staff), patients who needed and agreed to that level of care were transferred out. When cases were peaking, however, this meant that HHC needed to successively receive lower-level care patients to offload from the larger hospitals. The severity of COVID did tragically claim the life of some patients with compounding factors at Henderson Health Care.
After the intensity of the fall, they saw the situation level out. While positive cases were still detected, and individuals still needed care, it became manageable again. This was a surprising relief as the population ventured into holiday gatherings and the winter season.
“Throughout the pandemic, we learned how quickly we could respond,” explained Cheryl. When consulting with larger healthcare facilities in the area, HHC was often ahead on their practices and treatment possibilities. Even when the staff was working in full PPE under grueling circumstances, they remained flexible and willing to do whatever was necessary. It often meant knowing that they might contract the virus or take it home to their families. That was a heavy burden to carry. “The staff was very resilient. I think we found out what we were capable of at whole new levels,” Cheryl commented. Chelsea also chimed in detailing how much they had all learned this past year.
November offered a new treatment in the COVID fight with BAM infusions. These were utilized for COVID positive individuals who met certain criteria. Those who qualified received a one-hour medicinal IV at the hospital that significantly reduced the need for hospitalization in otherwise potentially high-risk cases. HHC has administered nearly 40 of them.
The next major turning point came in December when the hospital staff received their first round of vaccinations. “I could have cried when we gave the first doses,” Chelsea exclaimed. After a weary year, 2020 ended with a glimmer of significant change. Vaccines continued to roll out for the staff and residents at HHC in the following weeks. “The vaccination rate at HHC is high,” Cheryl stated. Notably, Rosewood Court is at the gold level with a 100% rate. Extensive education about the vaccine has been done both inside the walls of HHC and beyond to the community. To help achieve this, Dr. Vanderneck was featured in a video to explain the technology and safety of the vaccine.
Equipped with medicine, vaccines, in-house testing with quick results, and experience, HHC is currently in a good place in the pandemic. In fact, family members have recently been able to visit their loved ones in long-term care again after a challenging year apart. But it is a cautious optimism that lingers. While they currently administer about one COVID test per day, Chelsea urges the community to keep taking steps of protection.
“The community has really supported us well,” Cheryl declared. Helping to alleviate hindrances for healthcare workers, they provided childcare, homes to stay in, and also encouragement. With a message of hope for the area, she relayed, “The community should be very reassured by the preparation and treatment of COVID by Henderson Health Care.”
Though feeling elusive, time has marched on, and a look back at the past year helps to quantify just how far our local healthcare system has progressed with arduous work along the way.
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