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The decision to reopen several states during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic could put long-term care workers at an increased risk to catch the disease and see it spread throughout their facilities, according to several state associations. 

“Just because a state reopens that doesn’t change anything about the severity of the virus, the impact of the virus or the actual deadliness of this virus,” Mary Brinkley, executive director of LeadingAge Oklahoma, told McKnight’s

“The virus is still out there,” she added. “Every individual — even as the state is reopened — has to be really cognizant of the risk of their daily interactions.” 

Providers in other parts of the country where stay-at-home orders have been extended through May — such as California, New York and Illinois — are closely watching how their counterparts react in states that are reopening across the country. 

Oklahoma, which is set to begin its three-phase plan to reopen starting Friday — is among the handful of those states. Each phase lasts two weeks, with the final phase ending in June.

“There’s definitely trepidation,” Brinkley said. “I think there’s a feeling that we just haven’t seen the depth or breadth of what it might be in Oklahoma.” 

Brinkley explained that local reports are predicting that the state’s coronavirus case peak won’t come until late June or early July. She added that the decision to reopen could increase the exposure risk for staff members, especially since many people still aren’t wearing face masks in public. 

Brinkley said she expects providers to significantly increase their education tools for providers, residents and families on how to keep their exposure risk minimal. She added that providers also will likely continue the strict limitations on visitor access. 

“They’ve taken precautions above and beyond what was required early on just to protect the residents,” Brinkley said. 

“While the state might want to reopen, we still have to have a completely different mindset about how this will impact long-term care communities,” she added.  

The battle against the pandemic is “far from over” for skilled nursing providers and will continue to be a major threat for staff members on the front lines, said Steven Buck, president and CEO of Care Providers Oklahoma. He stressed the strict visitation policies should remain in place at long-term care facilities despite the decision to reopen. 

“Our employees need ready and ongoing access to personal protective equipment, continued cooperation from the public — especially as restricted visitations are likely for the foreseeable future — and the financial resources necessary to maintain enhanced PPE use and personnel costs created by this virus,” Buck said. 

Georgia reopens for business

When Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R) announced last week that the state would reopen, many providers were shocked, said Ginny Helms, president and CEO of LeadingAge Georgia. 

“We were all thinking, ‘What are you doing?’” she recalled during a LeadingAge coronavirus update call on Saturday. 

Helms explained that Kemp’s plan still will require seniors to shelter in place until at least mid-May, but noted that there still aren’t many people wearing masks outside their home, which could in-turn put healthcare workers at risk. 

“[Providers are] all working diligently to try to figure out how do we close that gap and manage that risk,” Helms said. She noted that plans should include more reliable testing. 

Providers have serious concerns about staff members unknowingly bringing the disease into facilities. 

“We have advised our members to empower and encourage staff to maintain social distancing. We have also encouraged them to consider implementing specific programs to make social distancing easier, such as assistance with acquiring groceries, offering transportation, and providing housing as examples,” said Devon Barill, director of communications for the Georgia Health Care Association. 

Barill added the shelter-in-place order for seniors will be key in continued efforts to stop the spread of the disease in long-term care facilities. 

“The highest priority for GHCA is the safety and wellbeing of all those residing in a long-term healthcare setting, and our members are making heroic efforts to keep their residents safe amid COVID-19,” Barill said. 

“These restrictions remain critical safeguards to help long-term care providers best protect their residents,” she added.