When the COVID-19 pandemic made it to Good Samaritan Society one year ago, life for residents and staff members at locations in 24 states changed overnight.
“I have a real vivid memory when it comes to where did this begin,” Randy Bury, Society president and CEO, says.
Randy remembers getting a call on March 3, 2020. At first, he thought it was a scam. He and a few others were being asked to visit the White House as part of the American Health Care Association, of which he is a board member.
“The next morning, I was at the White House meeting with Vice President Mike Pence, Dr. Deborah Birx and Seema Verma, who was the head of the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services,” Randy says.
When he met these federal officials to discuss COVID-19 at long-term care locations, he recalls greeting each with a handshake. No masks in sight.
“To think about doing that again at this point and walking into a room like that, especially with the vice president of the United States, and sharing all those handshakes, it just seems like a lifetime ago. It’s been a year of change to say the least,” Randy says.
Forming incident command
Although the Society had been preparing for the coronavirus for a few months by then, it set up an incident command center for daily COVID-19 planning on March 11.
“It’s having all our top leadership here at National Campus in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. It’s our chief medical officer, our vice president of operations, vice president of nursing,” Randy says. “Connecting virtually to the field and providing all the support that we can to our buildings and staff that are out there providing care.”
The move began the organization’s pandemic journey. Incident command continues to meet to this day in support of the Society’s health care heroes.
“My hat’s off to all of our health care heroes. The ones who through the course of this year have shown up every day in spite of risks to their own health and family,” Society chief medical officer Gregory Johnson, M.D., says.
Early on, community spread in cities across the country led to outbreaks at some Society locations.
Dr. Johnson says it’s been “a challenge of human will and endurance. We’ve seen people display incredible heart.”
The last 12 months have also been tragic as many residents and even a few staff members have died from COVID-19.
“We take each one of them personally. It’s a family member of ours,” Randy says. “Our hearts and our thoughts are with every one of the families involved.”
Because the virus is so deadly and contagious, there’s been a lot of safety guidance from states and restrictions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and CMS. One of the main restrictions focused on visitors.
“In normal times, there’s family available for our residents. So family are kind of serving that social need. The interaction with the residents. Giving them visits to look forward to. That all stopped last March,” Randy says.
Getting creative with visitation
Indoor, face-to-face visits at skilled nursing facilities were not allowed. Staff members stepped in as best they could to fill that void while window and outdoor visits for families became the norm.
“These residents really become family and part of our lives,” Society vice president of nursing and clinical services Rochelle Rindels said during a Facebook Live interview in January.
A nurse herself, Rochelle says Society staff used iPads to facilitate virtual visits for residents and their loved ones. They also came up with creative ways to keep residents active despite the lockdown.
“It seems like just your day-to-day work that you would not think twice about doing because you’re a nurse but the deep and impactful meaning that it has for residents and family members is really amazing to see,” Rindels said.
Shot of hope
Today, many of those restrictions are loosening thanks to the development and authorization of several COVID-19 vaccines. The Society hosted three vaccination clinics at each of its locations with the help of Walgreens and CVS.
“The vaccine, when it came out, it offered us hope. It’s that bright light at the end of the tunnel. It was a celebration, an absolute party when we could offer the vaccine to our residents and staff. It provided us a way out, a way to get back to normal,” Randy says.
Locations are starting to reopen to more frequent family visits now according to vice president of operations Nate Schema. Staff members are also finding ways to bring family in for more compassionate care visits.
“Mid-November we were sitting at nearly 1,000 cases between residents and employees. It was some dark times. I’m really excited to say we’re in a different spot today,” Schema says.
Measures are in place to make sure visits are safe for residents. Masks are still necessary and staff is screening visitors for symptoms.
“We have all the resources and tools. We understand the virus differently than we did back in early 2020. All of that allows us to feel more confident in our response. It allows us to confidently say, it’s safe to come to the Good Samaritan Society,” Schema says.
Check with your location to see the latest visitor restrictions. Many of the visits require personal protective equipment.
Benefits of integrated health system
While personal protective equipment supply isn’t a worry right now, it was a year ago.
“I’m really glad that we’re connected with Sanford Health because they were fighting those battles for us. We never ran out of anything that we absolutely had to have,” Randy says.
Good Samaritan Society and Sanford Health merged more than two years ago with the idea of being “stronger together.”
“When we were running out of gloves and gowns and hand sanitizer, it was the Sanford supply chain folks that were keeping us a step ahead of that demand,” Randy says. “What started out as words on paper really became reality in a meaningful way.”
Not only because of PPE. A wing at the Society’s basic care location in Arthur, North Dakota, transformed for a short time into a 24-bed skilled nursing center. The goal was to provide space for patients at Sanford Medical Center Fargo who need long-term care and open up rooms at the hospital.
Testing for COVID-19 was also a struggle right away.
“Being a part of a company that had its own lab, we were able to get testing sites set up in some of the buildings where we were having outbreaks,” Randy says.
Thank you, health care heroes
The efforts brought critical information to people working on the front lines.
“We can’t thank our staff enough for all the hard work they’ve done, their dedication and for all the comfort they’ve provided to people in this situation,” Randy says.
Caring for others is part of the Society’s mission.
“As hard as 2020 was, what a year to galvanize people around the cause of taking care of our loved ones. An opportunity to see humans stand up a little taller in the face of a challenge and dig a little deeper to give a little bit more. Our hats off. Thank you,” Dr. Johnson says.
Leaders are moving forward with gratitude for the staff members who are helping bring an end to the pandemic every day.
“I’m very happy to be able to say it’s safe to receive care at Good Samaritan Society,” Randy says.