Alaska nursing homes’ heroism in the face of COVID-19

We have all watched the horror stories from nursing homes in the Lower 48 that have experienced the ravaging effects of COVID-19. The American Health Care Association’s President Mark Parkinson described it, “For the elderly, COVID-19 is an almost perfect killing machine.” In Alaska, we had the gift of time and the talent of caregivers to heed this warning and implement measures to protect our elders. We are thankful there have been no COVID-19-related deaths in Alaska’s nursing homes.

Long-term care providers are following newly adopted mandates and guidelines to prevent the spread of the virus while maintaining the personal care to which residents have become accustomed. The overwhelming majority of Alaska’s 19 nursing homes have been able to keep COVID-19 out of their buildings. Two facilities had positive cases, and in partnership with the state of Alaska’s talented epidemiology team, quickly put into place mitigation efforts to stop the spread. Currently, there are no COVID-19-positive residents in any Alaska nursing home.

In addition to quickly implementing federal and state guidance, nursing home leaders met individually with the state’s Emergency Operation Center and health officials to go over preparedness plans, ensuring testing and access to personal protective equipment for nursing homes were prioritized. Close relationships among health care providers and the state allowed us to hit the ground running. It is a unique advantage to all being Alaskans.

Early efforts in Alaska to restrict nursing home visitors gave us a head start. Recognizing the heartache this causes for residents and their families, nursing home leaders quickly deployed technology to connect residents to their loved ones. For instance, in Nome the Quyanna Care Center residents use iPads to video chat with their families. It is being so well received that some residents are hugging the devices.

Other efforts to connect our long-term care residents with loved ones are even more creative. One facility has organized a drive-by parade in honor of Mother’s Day, while ASHNHA’s Alaska Caring Notes initiative has been an overwhelming success, with more than 550 messages sent to residents. We are so honored to be able to spread the love and support from all around the country to our elders. As the state begins to reopen, it is important for families to understand the need to continue face-to-face restrictions in the initial phases. Caregivers cannot wait to welcome you back to visit, but the safety of residents is a top priority.

The ability to wage a successful war on this virus, which can be so devastating to the elderly, is a testament to the heroes working to care for Alaska’s nursing home residents. Our heroes include direct caregivers who make the difficult choice between taking care of their own children who are out of school or the residents they consider family. Our heroes include receptionists, food workers, technicians and family members. We also recognize the important role the state and partners like Mountain Pacific Quality Health have played in keeping our residents and caregivers safe. We cannot beat this virus alone, and we appreciate all the support.

Connie Beemer, M.B.A., is the vice president of Post-Acute Care and Finance at the Alaska State Hospital and Nursing Home Association (ASHNHA). Beemer has been with the association for nearly eight years. ASHNHA represents more than 65 hospitals, nursing homes, and other healthcare organizations who employ over 10,000 Alaskans. Its membership spans geographically from PeaceHealth Ketchikan Medical Center to Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital in Utqiagvik.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.