Much of the world seems to have decided that COVID is a thing of the past. They’ve breathed a sigh of relief, acknowledged the challenges of the last two years, and are excited to move on to a future that looks a lot like the status quo we’ve long known.
However, in post-acute care, we know that reality looks a bit different.
We know that long-term care facilities, nursing homes, and skilled nursing facilities can’t put COVID in the rear-view mirror. For some leaders, this might feel discouraging or even isolating, but there is another path forward. This is a chance for long-term care leaders to step out as innovators in an ongoing pandemic—setting the tone for our organizations, communities, and the world overall.
What We Know About the Future of COVID-19
Predictions about the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 pandemic range from minor inconveniences to horrific outcomes. But what we know for sure is that, especially in the world of post-acute, there’s a long road ahead. Here’s why.
The elderly still suffer the most
COVID-related deaths are heavily concentrated in those over the age of 65—three out of four deaths are occurring in a demographic that makes up only about 16% of the population in the U.S. That’s about 300 deaths every day. As older Americans (and the immunocompromised) remain the most vulnerable to the pandemic, post-acute providers will feel ongoing pressure.
Winter is coming
While hospitalizations and deaths across the country are trending downward, current case numbers seem to be pointing at a winter surge. States in the northeast are experiencing an increase, and Montana, Oregon, and Washington are also seeing cases climbing.
Europe is a harbinger
We’re deep enough into the pandemic to have learned to recognize a few patterns. One of those is that when cases rise in Europe, it’s likely that we’re going to see a jump in U.S. numbers as we enter cooler weather.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control has tracked an increase in cases starting around the start of September—which is similar to rates in late July under the BA.4/BA.5 wave. While we do have more immunity in the U.S. because more people have been infected, that immunity is waning.
Our stakes are higher
The coming BQ.1.1 and XBB variants are better at evading immune system defenses, which could lead to higher transmission rates and more breakthrough infections in patients who are vaccinated or who have been exposed to the virus. On top of that, monoclonal antibody treatments tend to be variant-specific, meaning that new variants will be more challenging to address. The processes we’ve relied on to protect our elderly and immunocompromised residents and patients will likely be less effective.
How to Move Forward as Leaders in a Post-Acute Pandemic
All of this means that post-acute leaders are facing a future that looks very different than the past—and that finding a positive path forward will mean looking for areas of hope and progress. Leaders will benefit from identifying opportunities to turn the status quo into areas where you can do things differently in adapting to long-covid, staffing shortages, and unpredictable variants.
Acknowledge that we’re different
First, it’s going to be critical that we accept that, as a field, we’re working with a unique set of risks and rewards than the general population or even healthcare as a whole. Rather than being isolating, this is a chance to innovate in addressing the specific challenges of nursing homes, SNFs, and long-term care providers.
Face the challenge of Long COVID
A study out of Canada has found that patients are more likely to access long-term care after a positive COVID-19 test. While the study found that only a small subset of people increased their use, their impact on already strained resources could be significant. For long-term care leaders, this means that the risks and impact of post-COVID conditions will have to be part of your ongoing strategy.
The road ahead might be long, but that just means there are more potential victories in your future. For example, SNFs, since the beginning of the pandemic, have made significant strides in identifying and preventing COVID-19 and reducing serious outcomes. Facilities have learned how to protect their residents and have continued to adapt as new threats emerge.
As you move forward in the pandemic, continue to look for bright spots and areas of progress that you can celebrate, openly with your staff and community.
Monitor new vaccines to keep patients healthy and address staffing shortages
Vaccination has been critical to the post-acute progress in addressing COVID-19, and that won’t change. As new variants emerge, new vaccines are being developed to keep up. For example, the new mRNA bivalent boosters (both Pfizer and Moderna) target the dominant omicron strains in the U.S. With new variants emerging, post-acute leaders will need to keep up with vaccine access and messaging for both residents and staff to support long-term pandemic success.
As you face staffing challenges, keep in mind that vaccines can be a powerful tool. A recent study has found that front-line workers exhibited significantly milder infections along with lower viral loads compared to unvaccinated workers. They had fewer symptoms, shorter periods of illness, and needed less medical care—all factors that can make a difference when labor availability is stressed.
Lean on tech innovation
Staffing is almost guaranteed to become more challenging as future waves of COVID-19 progress through the population—so your traditional approach to staffing could leave you falling behind the needs of your residents, slipping below government requirements, and facing dwindling census numbers.
Now is the time to leverage every option you have in giving your full-time staff the flexibility and work-life balance they want by firing staffing agencies and instead, tapping into reliable float pools that allow you to equip your staffing toolbox with 100% of the nursing professionals available to you.
It’s very likely that as the pandemic continues we’re going to see closures of more post-acute facilities—but that’s not a foregone conclusion. Leaders like you can face the reality of a post-acute pandemic and emerge as innovators in public health and an ongoing beacon of hope for your residents and communities.
Megan is a business writer with over 15 years’ experience in healthcare enterprise technology. She holds an MBA and B.S. in Healthcare Administration. She now keeps an ongoing eye on the latest developments and successes in healthcare admin technology and the people who use it to build a better world for providers, patients, and their care communities.