Vernon Jeffery

Have you taken steps to protect your long-term care facility from the novel coronavirus? If not, there’s no time to waste.

Novel coronavirus (2019-nCoV) has been sweeping across the globe since being first identified in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China. As of Sunday, the World Health Organization (WHO) tracked 14,557 confirmed cases worldwide and eight in the U.S., including the first human-to-human transmission recorded in the country. Globally, at least 305 people have died. A previous coronavirus 17 years ago, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), struck with a disproportionately high mortality rate for persons 65 or older. It’s clear that this new viral outbreak could pose a grave issue for the long-term care community.

The WHO last week declared 2019-nCoV a Public Health Emergency of International Concern (PHEIC), a rare declaration. According to the WHO’s International Health Regulations and Emergency Committees, a PHEIC designates a public health crisis of potentially global reach and implies a situation that is “serious, sudden, unusual or unexpected,” which may necessitate immediate international action. The WHO is telling us that we, and especially the long-term care community, can and should be concerned. We need to start thinking about what we will do before, during and after this latest coronavirus runs its course.

Perhaps the most important thing that you can do as a leader in elder care is to connect with an increasing number of highly reliable sources of information. Open communication between peer organizations and between government and private sector entities at the local, state and federal levels is critical to establishing relationships needed to face this threat. No one can do it alone.

To help, the WHO has set up a web page to serve as a central clearinghouse for all of  its information and guidance regarding the current outbreak of novel coronavirus.

No one knows just how widespread 2019-nCoV will become, but you can take steps now to ensure that your patients, staff and visitors remain safe. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) provides current guidelines for healthcare and laboratory professionals. 

No two long-term care facilities are alike, and the same hazard will hit them differently, including the possible outbreak of viral contagion. Likely effects include widespread staff absenteeism and supply chain disruptions. You should be thinking about how you can continue operations without critical staff before an outbreak actually occurs. The day of the first recorded case of 2019-nCoV in your locality is not the time to consider your facility’s options for critical logistics such as food, laundry and sanitation. You can and should be thinking about these now, while you have the initiative.  

Great Britain’s Imperial College has published estimates that this coronavirus is about as infectious as a typical annual flu outbreak. The London-based scientists report that, on average, each coronavirus patient infects 2.6 others.

For each person receiving professional treatment right now, it’s reasonable to expect one to two people are in self-treatment at home — infected, contagious and unreported. Long-term care leadership needs to support its dedicated workforces and staff. Encourage anyone who believes he or she has been exposed to the virus to consult with medical professionals.

Facility leaders should consider designating a point person or point people to manage their enterprise-wide epidemic/pandemic contingency programs. What you deem appropriate for your facility is subjective. By establishing a structure and a roadmap before an outbreak occurs, you will be much more able to adapt to the unknown.

Now that the WHO has officially declared 2019-nCoV a public health emergency, we know that all of us should be concerned. But what does productive concern look like?

Consider these three points, regardless of your facility’s size or the number of beds under its roof:

  • Think about what hazards will manifest as a result of a novel coronavirus outbreak at your facility.
  • Plan for how you can mitigate or reduce the impact of each hazard that you identify.
  • Think about how you can maintain operations during an outbreak, even while responding to hazard impacts that you are not able to mitigate.  

Much remains unknown about 2019-nCoV. For example, the degree to which this virus is transmittable during the disease’s incubation period is uncertain. Asymptomatic people who might not even realize that they are sick with novel coronavirus could pass it on to others.

These are still the early days of the novel coronavirus response, so we should expect our understanding to change. We still have much to learn and share. The time to act, however, is upon us.

Vernon Jeffery is the lead strategist for Readiness Associates, which offers emergency preparedness, business continuity and disaster risk-reduction services to long-term care facilities and other healthcare organizations.