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Health Care Professionals Reflect On Pandemic Year

FREDONIA – The COVID-19 pandemic will go down in history for a number of reasons, including how many people it affected, from health to home life and everything in between.

Many industries in the area have changed and adapted to the situation thrust upon them in 2020, none more-so than the health care industry.

“2020 was like riding a tilt-a-whirl that was spinning really fast with no real guidance,” said Emelia Harley, vice president of patient care services and chief nursing officer at UPMC Chautauqua. “For health care in general, this has been a really, really tough year. There has been an incredible amount of illness and death that people have experienced … and I don’t necessarily mean local, but throughout the nation. It’s been tough and it’s been stressful for all.”

Health care is an ever-evolving service, so COVID or not it’s always changing and adapting to the needs in the community.

“Since March of 2020, our team has faced unprecedented hurdles to which they have responded with ingenuity, determination and selflessness,” said Colleen Hart, LNHA, Chautauqua Nursing and Rehabilitation Center administrator. “For more than a year, we have worked hand-in-hand with the Department of Health to incorporate aggressive infection control measures, screening practices, PPE use, vaccination administration and advanced cleaning protocols.”

With health care facilities still treating in-person patients, maintaining of PPE requirements, serving as COVID testing locations and doubling as vaccine clinics, in some cases, the demands are beginning to take their toll on health care professionals.

“It’s getting burnt out,” said Amy Pease, RN, Risk Manager Quality Assurance Consultant for the Chautauqua Center. “Trying to handle COVID testing, COVID vaccinations, patients through the door, having to schedule swabbing and still having to keep up on regular patient care. There’s just not enough staff to go around to be doing all of these services in a day.”

To combat the rapid changes of providing quality health care safely, many facilities have turned to prescription delivery services and an expanded look into Telemedicine. In some cases, these measures are improving patient responsiveness.

“As soon as someone gets hooked up with us for a Telemedicine visit, right away you’re being introduced to the patient portal. Right away we’ve broken down a barrier because patients have found out that it is easy to use, it’s easy to connect with us by video,” said Kelly McDonald, Executive Director of Regional Development for Great Lakes Physician Practice. “I feel people have been very open with our nurses and providers recently. Things that they may have waited for their next appointment, they are calling a lot more frequently so the phone volume certainly has increased over the past year.”

The Erie 2-Chautauqua-Cattaraugus BOCES Practical Nursing program, which trains future LPNs who more often than not find work in the local area, has also had to adapt and evolve due to the pandemic. Like K-12 schools, the program has adopted a hybrid model to better utilize classroom space.

“It’s been a challenging year-and-a-half, from going virtual and then hybrid,” said Sue Sosinski, BSN, RN, E2CCB Health Care Services Specialist. “Our staff and students have been able to make the switch and our health care partners have worked diligently to be able to get students safely back into clinical situations. As we know, they need the help, people need the care and our students need the experience.”

The BOCES School of Practical Nursing prepares nurses for licensure by offering an intense, 1,145 clock hour program. ACCUPLACER exams for enrollment in the upcoming July classes are taking place now at the Hewes Center in Ashville and LoGuidice Center in Fredonia.

“The nursing need this year has been incredible,” McDonald said. “It’s important we have nurses and I wish more people went into nursing. It’s a career that’s important and one people should look at. We always have a need for good CNAs and good LPNs. More than half of our clinical workforce is in nursing and more than half of those are LPNs.”

Demographically, Chautauqua County remains an aging population with high prevalence of diabetes, COPD, heart failure and varying comorbid conditions. When the pandemic subsides, the need for health care professionals will continue to be great.

“There are a lot of people with comorbid conditions in Chautauqua County and still need chronic care. Those needs are there and they’re difficult to meet for many. There is an ongoing and significant health care need in our area for health care providers,” Harley said. “(Because of this) there are a ton of LPN opportunities and so many different areas in which an LPN is so needed, both in the office setting where they can work more traditional hours and also in a variety of other health care areas, whether it be home care or in hospitals.”

To combat burnout in health care professionals and assist with new challenges, many providers have been turning to Practical Nursing interns.

“The E2CCB Practical Nursing program has been instrumental in getting us interns and because of the pandemic we’ve been needing them,” Pease said. “We’ve received COVID vaccine help and been able to get them in for rotation. Very few places have wanted interns for rotation and I couldn’t imagine being a student and not having any patient care. We’ve been able to let students through the door to help and we need it desperately to offset staff burnout.”

Moving forward, health care experts say the industry, as it always has, will continue to change to meet the needs of the community. The constant, however, will be the continued need for trained professionals passionate about helping others.

“For years, the last several years now, health care has been facing the trend of people aging out of careers. There are many more career opportunities for people nowadays. For many years, traditionally, health care has been female dominated and now woman have many more options … there are so many new fields out there,” Harley said. “Health care is expanding and it’s moving to different areas. There are opportunities for health care that used to be solely in a traditional hospital setting that are now occurring in homes, in clinic settings or even on a Telemedicine basis.”

“Nursing is rewarding. People need us, no matter how you look at it,” Sosinski added. “You do make a difference in people’s lives because after being a nurse for 40 years it has come full circle to me. You do it because it’s right, you do it because you want to help people and you want to feel like you made a difference in somebody’s life. And, you will never look for a job … jobs will come to find you.”

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