Home Health Providers Navigate Pandemic

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – Representatives of home health-care companies in the region report they are as busy as ever as they provide care during the coronavirus pandemic. Among the challenges the pandemic presents for caregivers are increased health monitoring and adequate supplies of personal protective equipment.  

Working in home care is a “very personal experience,” says Becky Baytos, director of home care and hospice for HM Home Health Services, Girard.

“When the patient is at the hospital you can regulate and define who is coming into that patient’s room,” she says. In a home-care situation, caregivers often “have no idea what we’re walking into.”

Caregivers wear facemasks and goggles, and patients are requested to wear masks during visits to prevent COVID-19 spread, she notes

HM Home Care is definitely taking care of many COVID-19 patients, Baytos says. As a result of the pandemic, the new norm is trending away from sending patients to a nursing home following a hospital stay. “So if they can be at home, then we’re going to do that,” she says.

Patriot at Home, also a Girard-based home health- care provider, likewise is seeing more demand for its services, administrator Sean Davis reports. The veteran-owned agency accepts COVID-positive patients to care for them in their homes, he says.

Although the pandemic has forced the company to be more “creative” in contacting its accounts in settings such as nursing homes, assisted living centers and hospitals because of restricted access, it hasn’t affected how it provides services, he says.   

“We have the capacity to take care of very sick people in the comfort of their own homes,” Davis says.

At FirstLight Home Care of Mahoning Valley, “Our activity has stayed relatively consistent,” says Mike Senchak, co-owner of the Austintown company. “We’ve not seen a big dip with COVID-19.”

FirstLight provides personal care and companion care needs for its clients, focusing on daily living activities including walking, grooming, meal preparation, housekeeping and shopping.

In general, people want to remain in their homes and “live in place,” Senchak says. He cites a study conducted two years ago by the National Institute on Aging that found 78% of older adults prefer to stay in their homes.

With COVID, caregivers regularly monitor their own health, and if something is not right – such as a spike in temperature – they have to call the office.

“What we do immediately is get that caregiver out of that situation and get the caregiver tested,” Senchak says.

Caregivers also wear masks and gloves during all visits, and if the client is reporting symptoms of illness they additionally need to employ a gown and eye protection.   

Home Instead Senior Care in Austintown says the need for its services is great regardless of the pandemic.

“We still have clients who need care because they are choosing to stay at home versus moving into a nursing home or living with a family member,” says Dottie Johntony, general manager.

But with social distancing guidelines in place, the need is greater because family members cannot help as much.

“It’s an overwhelming year. The need is so high,” Johntony says. “We have so many people who are looking for care for their loved ones inside of facilities they cannot get into.”

It’s “heartbreaking” when her company has to tell clients they aren’t able to do anything for a couple of weeks, she says.   

“Honestly, every aspect of medicine is being touched. Obviously patients still have demands and they’re still coming in,” says Robin Ivany, general manager for Boardman Medical Supply, which has five locations including in Boardman, Warren and Girard. 

“There definitely is a demand for respiratory products at this point,” she says.

BMS’ Savon Medimart is putting out a lot of nebulizers and pulse oximeters, according to Ivany.

There has been a decrease for specialized accommodations such as wheelchairs, since many of those are for patients in nursing homes, which are restricting visitation, she says.

Additionally, some mastectomy clients of Boardman Medical’s Pink Promises boutique are having virtual fittings done, Ivany continues. Many are undergoing chemotherapy and radiation treatments. Their immune systems are compromised and they are reluctant to visit in person.

“A lot of them are afraid to come in but we’re still taking care of patients the best way we can,” Ivany says.    

One of the issues facing home health care providers amid the pandemic is having adequate PPE as well as maintaining adequate staffing.

At the beginning of the pandemic, Patriot at Home had difficulty securing PPE but now has adequate supplies as well as sufficient staff to serve clients in its 16-county service area, Davis says.

“Our staff have been wonderful throughout this whole thing,” he continues. “They haven’t skipped a beat during the pandemic. They’re doing what they’re trained to do.”

“We did not struggle with PPE. It was just a matter of getting it and making sure we had enough,” says HM Home Care’s Baytos.

At Home Instead Senior Care, “Our PPE supplies for nonmedical care have greatly increased from everyday items that you would use in the home to those that are being used in [medical] facilities,” Johntony says.

Before the pandemic, facemasks were rarely worn during home visits unless the client was sick with the flu. Now caregivers are using N95 masks and isolation gowns.  

Demand for home care is so great that caregivers, even though they are taking good care of themselves, are “exhausted,” Johntony continues.

“With family members being told to stay away from their loved ones, our caregivers have become even more present in the clients’ homes as well,” she says.    

The shift to telehealth during the pandemic is one that likely will continue, Baytos says. But she notes it is a complement to and not a replacement for in-home visits.

“It depends on what that patient needs,” she says. “Early on, many patients in the community didn’t want us in their homes because they were afraid.”

HM Home Health is only reimbursed for telehealth visits by Medicaid and not Medicare or commercial payers. But the company provides the service despite that limitation.

“It’s the right thing to do for our patients,” Baytos says.