PIERRE, S.D. — Avera has a plan to protect those in their care that are in the most vulnerable population when it comes to COVID-19, and is relying on virtual technology, isolation and health screenings to prevent an outbreak of the virus in one of their nursing homes.

Doug Ekeren, regional president and CEO of Avera Sacred Heart Hospital, said the health care company oversees 21 long-term care facilities in total, mostly in South Dakota with some locations in Minnesota, Iowa and Nebraska.

“Most nursing homes, at least certainly our nursing homes have plans in place for when you have an illness that might hit the facility. Even though the COVID-19 brings some unique challenges, we can build on those plans,” Ekeren said.

“There’s also the strength in our system. We can bring in infectious disease experts in who can help share that expertise with the facilities to implement policies and standards that keep the residents and families safe so they can take care of the residents.”

Ekeren said closed visitation has been implemented because of the high-risk patients in Avera’s long-term care facilities. The facilities are using electronic means to help family members communicate with patients and residents. “It just wouldn’t be that physical connection they are used to,” Ekeren said.

No residents or staff have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Tuesday, March 24, Ekeren said.

As far as supplies go, Ekeren said Avera’s is adequate for now.

“The problem is keeping supplies especially if we do have a COVID positive staff or resident,” Ekeren said.

“We can certainly go through our supplies very quickly. At this point the ability to have supplies replaced is uncertain at best. We know that there are a lot of manufacturers to produce the equipment we’ll need, whether that equipment will be here at the time we need it is the question.”

Avera’s nursing home facilities all have their unique communities and may not have the same type of community spread and illness at the same time, Ekeren said.

“We want to learn from facilities who experience COVID situations in their community,” he added.

Ekeren said Avera is also screening all of the people that come into one of their facilities and preventing anyone from entering who has a temperature or fails a health screening.

In rural health care settings, he said there are only so many professional health services available.

“We want to use virtual technology to provide options for both patients to use and also for our providers to use so we can protect our providers so they don’t have exposure or have to self isolate for 14 days, or even worse to become positive and be out for longer than that,” Ekeren said.

“The second thing is certified nursing assistants. We can’t replace them with technology so we want to keep them healthy and do the best we can so we’re asking people to not travel as much as you would typically travel. We want to practice social distancing.”

For now, residents, staff and their families are making the best of a dire situation.

“I saw a photo the other day of a resident in our facilities looking through a window panel and on the other side of it were his grandchildren wishing him a happy birthday,” Ekeren said.

“That just shows we can still be together even though we’re apart. So we’re trying to make those types of accommodations for the facilities that have that type of glass secured area and at least visually, we can try to accommodate that as best we can.”

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