Wartburg President and CEO David Gentner discusses how the organization is handling being at the front lines of COVID-19, staff protection and community support.
The Wartburg organization, home to independent and affordable senior living, along with rehabilitative and nursing home care, is operating in a region that has become the epicenter of the Covid-19 pandemic. As the deadliest pandemic in a century sweeps through the region, the caregivers of Wartburg are working tirelessly to protect the population they serve, most of whom are elderly, or suffer from underlying medical conditions and at risk should they become infected with Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel Coronavirus. This critically important effort is taking place on many fronts because Wartburg serves a diverse population along the post acute senior care and housing continuum. In the best of times, many clients would have no recourse other than Wartburg to receive the care and services they need. In the current crisis, Wartburg has become even more indispensable.
Question: How is the Covid-19 pandemic impacting Wartburg, and how is Wartburg responding?
Answer: Covid-19 is widespread in our community, and if it’s widespread in the community, one way or another it’s going to have an impact on all of the programs we sponsor, and all of the relationships we have. Due to the widespread community transmission in New Rochelle, the Centers for Disease Control recommended extensive mitigation activities to slow the spread of COVID-19. Although Wartburg was not within the containment zone, it was less than two miles away so Wartburg followed the mitigation guidelines. Even prior to the Governor’s mandate, Wartburg restricted all non-essential visitors to the skilled nursing facility and assisted living buildings, including family members, students, interns, volunteers and vendors. In addition to the no-visitation policy, all staff were screened for signs or symptoms of respiratory illness and temperature checks, sent home if they are feeling ill, and told to wear facemasks if they are within 6 feet of residents. Wartburg also reinforced its protocols including promoting good hand hygiene by all staff, close surveillance of any residents with respiratory illness, isolating those residents with acute respiratory symptoms, providing appropriate personal protective equipment when caring for ill residents, and ensuring that employees stay home if they feel ill. Also, the frequency of cleaning hard surfaces in resident rooms and common areas such as handrails, elevator buttons, door knobs and phones with antiviral disinfectants was increased. Wartburg suspended Adult Day Services and all Outpatient Rehabilitation Services and worked to identity alternative services for patients and registrants of those programs. Staff were redeployed to other areas of the campus. Also, no public gatherings were allowed on the campus. Independent living residents have been encouraged to stay home and only go out if necessary. Food pantry distribution was made available for all independent living residents.
Question: What steps is Wartburg taking to protect staff from Covid-19 infection?
Answer: In addition to re-training of infection control procedures like proper hand washing, we are also working daily on sufficient supplies of personal protective equipment from various sources across the entire country and offshore. While keeping up with the increase in personal protective equipment utilization was very challenging initially, with shortages in most health care settings, we have been able to maintain stock consistent with the increased utilization. We make daily emergency requests with City of Mount Vernon Emergency Management Services, Westchester County Office of Emergency Management. Some Federal Emergency Management Agency supplies also made it to the campus. Unfortunately, senior care and housing facilities have been placed in a secondary position to the acute-care facilities in terms of access to personal protective equipment – even though we’re treating the same Covid-positive patients.
Question: What else can be said about staff support?
Answer: Staff support has never been more important as they’re providing care at great risk to themselves and under challenging, emotional and physical conditions. We can’t say enough about the selfless dedication to service here. Because of the widespread community transmission, all of us are at risk of exposure. For those who have been exposed or are diagnosed, the department of health recently provided guidelines for a safe return to work. As a result of the school closings, childcare needs are now being met by various Westchester County agencies, schools and churches/houses of worship.
Question: Is Wartburg altering its facilities to help fight the pandemic?
Answer: All residents with COVID-19 positive or presumed positive diagnosis are in isolation. Also, while every hospital in the state was mandated to increase its capacity by 50 percent, Wartburg was not part of this mandate. However, the state has mandated that senior care and housing facilities continue a flow of patients from hospitals into the nursing homes and adult care facilities, and that homes may not deny admissions to people with Covid-19. Not that we would, as it is inconceivable that in this time of need we would turn our backs on people with Covid-19. Thus we have been working with the hospital systems on admitting COVID-19 positive patients, provided the availability of sufficient staff and enough personal protective equipment. In consultation with the department of health, we’ve established dedicated units within the nursing home buildings for those who are either positive or presumed positive to COVID-19.
Question: What can you say about testing or treatment?
Answer: Regarding testing, there is no wholesale public testing available for any aspect of the community although the New Rochelle epicenter is less than 2 miles away. Wartburg was however early to test individual patients, subject to Department Of Health approval. First through the State’s Wadsworth center, then using the local labs once the testing was decentralized. However, since the department of health recommended a discontinuance of testing of residents and staff because of sustained community transmission in the region, we are responding to any febrile respiratory illness with a presumption of COVID-19 and infection control measure are implemented.
Question: What can be done for families who are unable to visit their loved ones?
Answer: Hospitals have prohibited all visitation, even at end of life. Wartburg however is able to provide special circumstances where it’s possible for end of life family visits. Communication with families remains a priority, we are trying to be as transparent as possible regarding resident protection measures, procedures, and of course promoting phone calls & virtual visits for family members and their loved ones due to the visitation restrictions. This is done through the Therapeutic Recreation department. We’ve put together virtual programming via the cctv system within the resident rooms and common areas. Also, we are working with our Social Workers and Director of Spiritual Care to ensure that we can offer bereavement services and support to any of the families who are affected by Covid-19. The bereavement support is virtual at this point.
Question: How can the greater Westchester community help? Where can they donate? Are there particular material items needed? And are volunteers needed?
Answer: Our website contains a Covid-19 information page with resources and it is updated periodically for those who have questions about the pandemic and Wartburg’s response. We are tremendously grateful for the outpouring of support from families and the greater community who have offered supplies and words of encouragement to the Wartburg staff. The Governor and County Executive have called for retired nurses and medical professionals to volunteer to help in the effort and any available nursing staff would be helpful in this fight. We need community support more than ever and we want people to consider making an emergency gift in the form of monetary donations, donations of personal protective equipment such as masks, gloves and hand sanitizer, or simply words of encouragement for residents and staff.
Question: Anything else you’d like to say to close?
Answer: We want to make sure that families know that everything that can be done is being done. Whether it’s how we care for our patients or how we protect our staff. This is an unprecedented crisis, and what’s occurring at Wartburg is occurring everywhere in the community. All of us should self-monitor for COVID-19 illness – especially those who have had close contact with a person with possible or confirmed COVID-19. Such ill persons should only seek healthcare if they have severe or worsening illness. We also continue to encourage everyone to practice infection control measures, stay home if you are feeling sick, wash your hands regularly, and remember to social distance.