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‘Working Diligently’

Social Distancing Heightened At Area Nursing Homes

Heritage Ministries expects that heightening coronavirus precautions will continue even after public social distancing comes to an end. “Other than our staff, there are no other folks coming into our facilities,” said David Smeltzer, Heritage president and CEO. “Our staff are required to be screened before every shift.” P-J photo by Jay Young

Even when social distancing restrictions are relaxed for the general public, extra precautions to fight coronavirus are likely to stay in place for the residents and staff of local nursing facilities.

Heritage Ministries, which operates a number of skilled nursing facilities including Heritage Green in Greenhurst and Heritage Village in Gerry, has formed a coronavirus task force to ensure that the proper protocols are in place for its residents.

“So far, thankfully, we are COVID-free to the best of our knowledge, so that is a positive reality,” said David Smeltzer, Heritage president and CEO. “We fully anticipate at some point in time we will have at least one of our facilities impacted with a positive case, whether that be our residents or staff.”

The task force in place includes experts in nursing care and living care, a medical team, communications team, as well as a registered nurse with infection control prevention certification from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“We formed the task force before we started seeing significant regulatory mandates and executive orders,” Smeltzer said. “Because of the scare in Seattle, they were slightly ahead of the curve. We put together the task force so that the communications that needed to go out were consistent and appropriate.”

Heritage operates a nursing facility in the Seattle area, and implemented heightened sanitation measures and campus shutdowns prior to federal mandates.

For nursing facilities all around the country, maintaining open lines of communication with state and federal agencies has been a main priority.

“The Tanglewood Group Inc. is working diligently with the New York State Department of Health and various other public health and state agencies to ensure we have and provide the most up to date information on the novel coronavirus (COVID 19),” said Nick Ferreri, president of the Tanglewood Group, via news release. “Daily communication includes the latest medical guidance and strategies on how to reduce our personal risk of exposure to mitigate an outbreak or spread of the virus.”

Safety protocols are one issue, while social and mental health also have to be addressed.

“We are doing everything we can to keep our residents connected to their families through e-visits, telephone calls, texting and video chats,” Smeltzer said. “We are doing a lot of things like that to keep the residents interacted and in-touch, even though they can’t have visitors.”

In order to keep residents at skilled nursing, assisted living and independent living facilities engaged, Heritage has several programs and techniques. These include e-visits with friends and family, whiteboard messages which can be displayed from loved ones, window visits, as well as activities like sing-alongs.

“Those are the things we are doing to keep our residents connected and healthy in mind,” Smeltzer said.

Currently, all Heritage facilities are only open to necessary personnel, and all group activities have been canceled.

“The only people coming in from outside are our staff or personnel for medical visits. If we need blood drawn or a mobile X-ray taken,” Smeltzer said. “Other than our staff, there are no other folks coming into our facilities. Our staff are required to be screened before every shift, we have a screening tool for signs and symptoms.”

Heritage is also making sure that any staff members who have traveled to areas where the virus is prominent are isolated for the recommended 14-day waiting period before returning to work.

“Our main goal is to keep it out of the facilities for as long as we can,” Smeltzer said.

Like many other businesses, Heritage is directly impacted by the availability of protective masks and clothing during this time.

“If and when we have a confirmed case, we are going to be concerned about the gowns, gloves, N95 masks, foot covers, all of those things,” Smeltzer said. “You can start burning through those pretty quickly. Hopefully we are ahead of that curve.”

A little ingenuity has helped staff members maintain stocks of surgical masks. One regional manager of a Heritage facility heard about a simple sewing pattern for a sleeve that can be slipped over masks to extend their lifespan. These sleeves can easily be sewn and then washed and reused.

These precautions are likely to extend beyond the time of social distancing for the general public, as the residents of skilled nursing facilities represent high-risk groups for infection.

“The people we serve are on the most vulnerable end of those who will be affected by the disease,” Smeltzer said. “The highest mortality rate is for the group of folks we serve. Until they come up with a true treatment that gets folks turned around quickly, or by some miracle this goes away, our folks are unfortunately probably going to be affected the longest.”

During a time when hours are being cut and jobs lost, Heritage is still in need of skilled workers. “We are hiring full-time, part-time and temporary workers,” Smeltzer said. “We need help, so we are encouraging people to come out.”

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