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Meeting COVID-19 Head-On

Brenna Waterhouse stands in the flowered courtyard of the long term care facility where she works

The U’s Health Services Management program gave Brenna Waterhouse the tools to tackle her first year as the assistant administrator of a long-term care facility when the pandemic hit

There are few industries that have been more deeply impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic than health care. The starkest example came in the early days when the world was just beginning to grasp the implications of a total lockdown. Even if it was understandable, it was shocking to learn that care facilities, such as hospitals and nursing homes, would no longer allow visitors—not even close family members.

Brenna Waterhouse, who graduated from the Health Services Management (HSM) program in May 2020, had been working as the assistant administrator at Episcopal Church Home, a long-term care facility in Saint Paul, since November of the previous year. “COVID really hit and we shut down in mid-March. It was definitely a crazy time.”

During the first months of the pandemic, Waterhouse says, regardless of safety protocols already in place, new protocols were being introduced frequently, sometimes several a week. “It was a huge change. Not allowing visitors was unheard of. It’s actually a regulation for us, that we can’t ban visitors. There were a lot of new regulations around testing that had to do with the positivity rate in your county, whether we had to test once a month, once a week, or twice a week. Also, in the beginning, we didn’t have PPE [personal protective equipment] at all. So we were buying PPE for outrageous prices and figuring out, Do we wear cloth masks? Do we wear surgical masks? When do we wear what? And when do we change them? I mean, for a while, staff were only getting a new mask once a week. And now we’re at a point where everyone can get a new mask every day.”

Even while residents and staff were adopting the new safety rules, there was a daily stream of outside vendors to contend with. “We have probably ten vendors that come in every single day. We have hospice workers, and the oxygen tank filler who comes in and out of buildings, filling tanks and switching those out. And we have a food supplier who’s coming and going.” Waterhouse says that, despite this outside contact, the rigorous protocols helped them keep the number of cases of COVID-19 to a minimum during the worst months of the pandemic.

Crucial Collaboration

A crucial support system during that time was an initiative launched in fall of 2020 that connected staff from 33 nursing homes around the Midwest via Zoom to learn from each other. “Being able to connect with other administrators in the industry made a huge difference,” says Waterhouse about the Upper Midwest Nursing Home COVID-19 ECHO Collaborative, a first-of-its-kind partnership between the University of Minnesota Medical School (Geriatric Workforce Enhancement Program), School of Nursing, and College of Continuing and Professional Studies, in collaboration with Hennepin Healthcare. “We were able to run things by others to make sure we were doing things the right way and that we didn’t miss anything. Because sometimes the state will put out guidance for one thing and the CDC will put out guidance that says something completely different. And since we’re regulated by both of them, that was very confusing. Being able to talk to other people in the industry was the best part of the program.”

Brenna Waterhouse stands near the entry of the long term care facility where she works

One major topic of discussion between collaborative participants was vaccines, which were anticipated to become available by the end of December 2020 for care facilities. “We were talking about vaccines a lot and how to manage that and where to go to sign up to get them,” says Waterhouse. “In the beginning, there were only two places to get them: CVS and Walgreens. Some facilities were hearing back from their pharmacy right away and were able to set appointments, while other facilities hadn’t heard anything. Eventually it worked itself out but it was challenging at the time.”

Waterhouse, who has known since high school that she wanted to go into long-term care, says that despite a trying first year, the U’s HSM program gave her the tools to excel in her position. “I really enjoyed the program and got a lot out of it. At least once a month we’d have speakers from all over the industry. Long-term care lawyers and people from Volunteers of America and Monarch, which are different long-term care organizations, would come in and speak. There was a director of HR. We learned all aspects of health care and long-term care from all these experts.

“I really recommend the U’s HSM program for anyone wanting to go into health care administration,” says Waterhouse. “It just has it all.”

Visit the Health Services Management and the Long Term Care websites for more information.