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What Nursing Homes Are Doing To Protect Maine’s Most Vulnerable Residents From Coronavirus

From what’s known so far about the new coronavirus, older adults are at higher risk of getting very sick from COVID-19.

Maine’s population is one of the oldest in the U.S., with more than 20%of residents over the age of 65. That has nursing homes, home care organizations and senior groups on high alert as the illness has now infected hundreds across the country and caused more than two-dozen deaths.

With the possibility of a coronavirus outbreak looming, organizations that provide home care are dusting off emergency plans and ramping up efforts to prevent and, if necessary, contain the virus.

“It’s prepare for the worst, hope for the best,” says Cathy Bean, the lead nurse for telehealth and community health at Northern Light Home Care and Hospice.

That means making sure clients have enough medication and food on hand in case there’s a disruption in supply or a quarantine, Bean says. Northern Light Home Care is taking preparedness seriously, she says, but in many ways, protocols are already ingrained in the workplace.

“If we get a bad snowstorm in Maine, we are using these plans. And if we get a windstorm or a rainstorm, we use these plans. So there are all things that we know how to do,” she says.

Efforts also include more staff training and reminders on infection control, says Robert Abel, chief nursing officer for MaineHealth Care at Home.

“Hand washing, how to use protective personal equipment, and be able to tell us what to do in certain situations,” he says.

The goal is to keep the 1,600 home care clients they serve across southern Maine, as well as the staff that serves them, healthy. If staff do become ill, Abel says, that’s a potential issue because the state already has a shortage of health care workers.

“One of the benefits that we have at this agency, and I know some others in the state, is we use telehealth, so we are able to provide virtual care to some of our patients. So we think that would be helpful in a reduced staffing situation,” he says.

Nursing homes are also planning for the possibility of staff shortages, says Rick Erb, the president and CEO of the Maine Health Care Association, which represents 200 nursing and assisted living facilities.

“We’ll do the best that we can, we’re working with DHHS licensing on what the staffing requirements are and how those will be enforced. The bottom line is we have to be able to provide the type of care required based on the needs of residents. So no matter what, that will be addressed,” he says.

Erb says nursing homes are also doing more sanitizing and screening. Visitors are asked about their health, travel history and possible exposure to others who have been to areas where outbreaks have occurred. He says the Maine Health Care Association has created a website specifically for its members to provide current information and recommendations.

“The population we care for, which is typically age 80 and up, with already existing health issues, makes them most vulnerable. So we are in a unique situation to begin with. People live in close quarters with each other. The potential for an outbreak is certainly great when you have that many people living in one building together, so this is an issue for us,” he says.

Organizations that serve older adults in the community are also taking precautions. Betsy Sawyer-Manter is president and CEO of Seniors Plus in Lewiston, a nonprofit that provides home visiting, Meals on Wheels and other services in three western Maine counties. She says staff now calls clients before visiting to make sure they’re healthy.

“Sometimes we will deliver a meal, but we’ll ask them not to open the door until after we leave. Or they leave their door unlocked and we slip their meal inside the door, so we just try to not have exposure either from us or to them,” she says.

Sawyer-Manter says SeniorsPlus is fielding a lot of questions from its clients about what to do. She says she advises them to have an adequate supply of medications on hand and to get the flu shot. It won’t protect against the novel coronavirus, she says, but it’s one less illness to worry about.