This article originally appeared on LinkedIn, by AlayaCare CEO, Adrian Schauer.
In many states, authorities, health-care workers, and residents are watching a situation unfold that most hoped was in the rear-view mirror. COVID-19 infections are on the rise, hospitalizations are escalating, ICU beds are dwindling, and hospital conference rooms are converting to patient units. The aggressive Delta variant is exerting a brutal impact, particularly in communities with lower vaccination rates.
The home care industry is swept up in this Delta crisis, navigating client care in the face of a virus that is at least twice as contagious as previous COVID-19 strains. Not only can Delta cause double the number of infections, but it can also cause more severe illness that lands more people in the hospital. We may be staring at hyperlocal outbreaks in communities across the country even with the sea of question marks surrounding Delta and new mutations like the Delta Plus variant.
The mood in the nation’s home health community is a worry that we could be in for another rough time. Alarm bells are now sounding in long-term care facilities and nursing homes, where clients may be vaccinated (U.S. data shows 81 percent of nursing home residents are fully vaccinated) but staff may not be. In areas with lower vaccination rates, that fear is very real – and we can expect it to drive even more families to search for safer alternatives for their loved ones.
Home care responds to COVID-19… again
No matter what communities a home care agency serves, it is prime time to get as proactive as possible from an operational standpoint. There will be no brief window of a drop in client volume like we saw in spring 2020 – Delta will spike demand for home care, particularly for those agencies who offer skilled specialties.
While growing a client base is generally a net positive, there is nonetheless a concern that rising client volumes could strain and stress caregivers who have already been tasked with the previously unimaginable – working 17 straight months through a pandemic. Such internal pressure could exacerbate employee burnout as well as threaten recruitment and retention efforts amidst a landscape where skilled caregivers are already in short supply.
There are plenty of other decisions for agencies right now. How can they best ensure staff are fully vaccinated? It’s been thus far uncommon in the industry to mandate COVID-19 vaccines among employees. In fact, many agencies have middle-of-the-road vaccination rates, meaning that educating and engaging staff in safety is vital. This can be challenging as many skilled and personal care workers do work part-time – and with that additional arm’s length are less likely to feel compelled to toe the line.
But as Delta deals its crushing blow, home care agencies don’t have a lot of choices. They are forced to double down on PPE, boost educational efforts, expand internal communication efforts, and protect staff as best they can.
As one VNA of Albany senior leader told Home Health Care News in mid-August: “just because you’re vaccinated doesn’t mean this is over.” In this industry, it’s imperative to stay vigilant for the safety of clients.
Modernize operations to manage during and beyond a pandemic
The home care industry has already absorbed rapid change during COVID-19, with many implementing new technological solutions to facilitate urgent new considerations such as remote work and virtual care. Delta is the latest timely spur to ensure operations can be as flexible as possible in helping to maintain the safety of all stakeholders.
We’ve seen that busy coordinators can work efficiently from home. That care managers can adequately conduct supervisory visits via telehealth or virtual visits. That home office maintains even greater contact and communication with caregivers through mobile apps. That clients and their families eagerly and successfully adopt engagement tools such as portals that offer real-time information and connection. That onboarding and training of new staff can be expedited in remote and online fashion.
The virtual care opportunities, including wearable technology, are particularly intriguing. Each agency determines its comfort level, in tandem with its clients, but the possibilities are here to stay.
For instance, how many visits by caregivers are about monitoring patient progress or collecting vitals? Could some of this burden be shifted to clients, enabling them to take greater control of self-managing their care? With the right tools and support, many clients can themselves be responsible for some documentation. Meanwhile, family caregivers can become more sophisticated care team members, capturing vitals and monitoring loved ones – aided by resources available in the cloud.
A strong software platform can enable nurses to attend to double their client interactions each day and perform functions like charting in real-time. This added capacity is important while demand for home care grows.
Agencies must modernize operations, uncover efficiencies, and attract and retain skilled caregivers. Mobile tech eliminates tedious work and unnecessary travel that raises the risk of burnout or churn. It can also uncover efficiencies with scheduling and other operational processes so that fewer caregivers may be required in the first place. It can help improve communication (including automated SMS messages), optimize scheduling, and empower caregivers to spend more time doing what they do best.
This industry sits in an unprecedented position – as, finally, a main player in the broad conversation around health care. COVID-19, now Delta, has emphasized the need for medical and non-medical support delivered at home. Agencies can ensure that they maintain quality of care by making the right technology moves to support operations inside and outside of a pandemic.
What adjustments have you made that best positioned your agency to withstand the COVID-19 threat and continue meeting client needs?