Founded more than 20 years ago, AccentCare has been witness to SARS, H1N1 and a number of other outbreaks. Even before the World Health Organization (WHO) officially upgraded the COVID-19 outbreak to global pandemic status, AccentCare had begun implementing several measures to protect its staff while continuing to provide care for its patients.
Dallas-based AccentCare has over 170 locations across the U.S. As a company, it provides skilled home health and personal care services, along with hospice care, private-duty nursing and care management services.
On a global level, the coronavirus has reportedly impacted more than 125,000 people and counting.
As of Friday, the number of reported cases in the United States was 1,215, according to statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Statistics, however, are changing by the hour — and a shortage of testing kits means the exact number of cases is largely unknown.
Despite past outbreaks and natural disasters, the spread of coronavirus feels unprecedented within the in-home care industry, according to Steve Rodgers, CEO of AccentCare.
“I’ve been in different positions over the last 25 years, and outside of managing a couple of hurricanes, I don’t think we’ve ever quite seen a crisis parallel to what we are seeing today,” Rodgers told Home Health Care News. “It’s a relative unknown compared to SARS or some of the other viruses.”
AccentCare was ahead of the curve when it came to preparing for the spread of coronavirus. When the company first caught wind of a possible outbreak more than a month ago, leadership began making plans on how to address the worsening problem.
“All organizations like ours have [standard emergency processes] in place, but we recognized that this was a bit different,” Rodgers said. “We started putting a plan together that focused on taking care of our patients and our employees. There is a lot in our environment that we can’t control, but having an educated workforce that knows proper sterilization procedures and how to protect themselves — and patients — is something we can [manage].”
As part of its COVID-19 plan, AccentCare promptly created a coronavirus task force within its own organization. One of the objectives of the task force was to work with the company’s suppliers to make sure they had the technology and equipment needed to manage the crisis.
“We started working with our external suppliers,” Rodgers said. “We have a large shared services component. And to be able to send our employees home, it’s critical that they have all the right technology.”
Another purpose of the internal task force was to lead the rollout of education programs for AccentCare’s employees across all business lines.
To reach employees, the team uses every resource at its disposal, according to Sara Castillo, AccentCare’s chief nursing officer.
“We developed a small team of experts,” Castillo told HHCN. “We wanted to proactively manage risk and educate our staff. We developed a program that utilized our [learning management system]. We used WebEx, we sent texts and external mailers to our employees. We developed protocols specifically for COVID-19.”
Some of the new mandatory training included, for example, how to use protective equipment and when to use respirator masks, according to Castillo.
“We wanted to make sure that [clinicians] had a sound foundation when they were out there servicing our patients,” she said.
Among other things, coronavirus has also caused AccentCare to be prudent about its distribution of supplies. So far, that has allowed the company to avoid major supply shortages — a growing concern among providers.
“We took an inventory of all our supplies in each of our locations, and then we developed a central command center for this,” Castillo said. “We were able to triage supplies as our teams needed them.”
For example, the company had close to 600 masks at its Boston location that were essentially collecting dust. The creation of an inventory central command center allowed them to redistribute the masks to affected areas in California.
On the care side, AccentCare began screening patients for relevant symptoms and interviewing those who had recently traveled.
Still, AccentCare’s biggest risk as an organization is maintaining a healthy workforce, according to Rodgers.
“Think of it this way, on the home health platform, we have 25,000 patients on service,” he said. “We have a responsibility to the patients, so making sure that our workforce … is taking all of the protective measures to stay as healthy as possible is important. We want to make sure they are healthy walking into the home, so that we do not become a carrier of this virus into our populations.”
Around its office locations, AccentCare encourages hand sanitation at the start of the workday. Plus, the office walls are covered with various educational posters and professional travel protocols have been updated, according to Rodgers.
As the spread of the virus continues, over-capacity may become a concern. In order to get ahead of related challenges, AccentCare has implemented mandatory daily reporting to track current capacity levels.
“We are in very strategic joint venture relationships, so it’s not just about us,” Rodgers said. “It’s about taking care of our partners and making sure that we can be an effective entity when it comes to stabilizing their populations back out in the community. I do see potential issues of capacity from both having a sicker workforce, as well as more patients.”
Telehealth has come to the forefront as a possible capacity solution, one Rodgers believes the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) should be considering.
“One of the things CMS should be doing in a time period like this, to improve capacity in the system, is to seriously look at telehealth,” he said. “Unfortunately, if we broadly expanded telehealth, we couldn’t get paid for it.”
Earlier this week, the U.S. Senate approved a bill that waived some telehealth restrictions, lifting the nonrural settings restriction and allowing some health care practitioners to offer telehealth via telephones with audio and video capabilities.
In the end, one lesson that may come from the coronavirus outbreak is how to better prepare for the future, according to Rodgers.
“All of us are learning, as this goes on, how to appropriately react,” he said.