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Volunteer Network helps N.H. nursing homes cope with COVID

By Staff | May 23, 2020

This undated electron microscope image made available by the U.S. National Institutes of Health in February 2020 shows the virus that causes COVID-19. The sample was isolated from a patient in the U.S. (NIAID-RML via AP)

RYE – A newly formed statewide network of volunteers has been working for four weeks to provide guidance to senior residential facilities in New Hampshire, including assisted living and nursing homes, to enable them to better handle the health crisis caused by COVID-19.

As of May 15, the COVID Alliance Senior Support Team (SST), has more than 60 volunteer COVID response liaisons serving over 60 facilities. The liaisons are available daily to gather information about the facilities’ needs and connect them with state, federal and private resources that can help them. The most common issues liaisons discuss with facility staff are personal protective equipment (PPE), staffing and testing needs.

The effort launched on April 13, after having consulted with residential industry associations, state government officials, university leaders, medical experts and the New Hampshire Nurses Association. The impetus for the program came from the COVID-19 Policy Alliance, founded by faculty at the MIT Sloan School of Management to help reduce the impact of the virus, particularly on the elderly.

Senior Support Team chairman and New Hampshire State Senator Tom Sherman, a practicing physician, points out that the age, comorbidities and close proximity of the residents of senior residential facilities put them at especially high risk of COVID-19 outbreaks: “Experience in Italy, Spain, Washington State and a growing list of locations around the world, shows that COVID-19 can spread quickly among the residents and staff of senior residential facilities, and the evidence is clear that older COVID-19 patients are more likely to require hospitalization or die. This makes senior care facilities a critical front line in the fight against COVID-19. The volunteers of the Senior Support Team intend to do everything they can as remote volunteers to support senior care facilities through this crisis.”

Each participating facility began by filling out a survey to evaluate its potential exposure to COVID-19 and to inform the facility’s liasons of its risks and needs. The SST also operates an automatic text messaging tool, developed by MIT graduate student Jackie Baek, to quickly and easily document new cases and new needs at each participating facility each day. This has become a critical technical tool for the SST and its partners.

The SST first contacted residential facilities to see if they were interested in participating through a number of associations, including the New Hampshire Association of Residential Care Homes (NHARCH), the New Hampshire Healthcare Association (NHHCA), LeadingAge ME & NH, and the NH Association of County Nursing Homes. The SST collaborates with these associations to share knowledge and resources. They advocate for the needs of participating senior living and long-term care providers. With the consent of participating facilities, the SST provides data on facility status to the associations each day.

“Given the nature of this pandemic, our usual support systems have been stretched beyond their capacity. The importance of collaboration with other associations and organizations has increased a great deal. We welcome the Alliance’s expertise in data collection, as well as volunteer coordination, to help our members, and the members of our industry partners,” said Kelly Adams, Vice President of the New Hampshire Association of Residential Care Homes (NHARCH).

Lisa Henderson, Executive Director of LeadingAge Maine & New Hampshire, says, “LeadingAge Maine & New Hampshire is grateful for our partnership with the COVID Alliance. Their rapid development and deployment of a daily texting program to help us check in with our members on the frontline is helping us direct resources to them and continue to advocate for their most urgent needs including PPE, staffing and testing.”

The New Hampshire Nurses Association (NHNA) was a critical partner for the SST on volunteer recruitment and organization.

“We are proud that NHNA Past President, Dr. Judith Joy, has been appointed the Statewide Coordinator for the COVID response liaison volunteers. Paula MacKinnon (President-Elect, School Nurses Association) has also played a critical role developing the team’s data collection tools,” said NHNA Nurse Executive Director Joan Widmer.

Nearly all of the volunteer liaisons of the SST have some level of healthcare training, and a majority are current school nurses or retired nurses recruited by the NHNA. Also represented on the all-volunteer SST team are MIT student EMTs and graduate students, professors and physician assistant students from MCPHS, Dartmouth medical students, political campaign operations and data experts, and volunteers from the NH business and nonprofit sectors.

“The SST has developed a menu of resources to ensure the volunteer liaisons are always aware of the latest guidance for their calls. I’ve worked closely with nurse educators from around New Hampshire to create a searchable FAQ/reference site where SST liaisons and senior care facilities alike can quickly find answers to their questions and links to authoritative public health information,” Deb Baker, Library Director at Manchester Community College, who also serves as the Chief Librarian for the SST.

The Medical Advisory Group vetting the materials used by the SST includes State Rep. Dr. Jerry Knirk, Dr. Paul Friedrichs, Dr. Karl Singer, Dr. Apara Dave, SST Chairman and NH State Senator Dr. Tom Sherman, Dr. Daniel Stadler, Dr. Bruce Bartolini, Dr. Kim Perez, and Prof. Linda Martino.

“We intend to be ready to serve all of the over 200 licensed senior care facilities in New Hampshire”, said SST Executive Director Daniel Curtis. “We have the structure and the amazing volunteers to do it, and we’ve already made a big impact to help get the senior care facilities of New Hampshire the support they need.”

To learn more about the SST, visit covidalliance.com/sst.

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