Shortly after the global pandemic was declared in early March 2020, most nursing homes locked their doors to non-essentials and heavily restricted “foot traffic.” Many rehab specialists pondered an uncertain future.

“Everyone was questioning to what extent therapy was essential or non-essential,” recalled Hilary Forman, chief clinical strategies officer for HealthPRO Heritage. 

Facility gyms closed immediately, and with them, group therapy. 

Nearly every nursing facility completely cut itself off for a short period, asking therapists to spend the respite updating their infection control procedures. Most facilities spent the time deciding how to keep infected residents segregated while designing traffic patterns to control risk.

Michael Smith, an independent therapy consultant for skilled nursing facilities and rehabilitation centers, said many of his clients quarantined all new admissions in separate wings or areas for 10 days while confining therapy services to private rooms. Therapists came and went through separate entrances and decontamination areas.

COVID-19 necessitated quick thinking, and fueled a wave of creativity.

HealthPRO acquired special masks with clear plastic cutouts that allowed speech therapists and residents to see mouths. Additional tweaks were needed for memory care residents, most of whom were simply at odds with all things PPE.

Telehealth actually opened up a world of possibilities, with therapists broadcasting solo in a shuttered gym space to room-bound COVID-19 residents via a ZOOM or similar interface. In time, therapists watched virtual become the norm in other things like wellness classes, social activities and gaming.

Forman and HealthPro staff convinced several facilities to allow them to design new therapy spaces using 3D CAD software. In some facilities, rendering these new spaces allowed staff to repurpose shuttered areas like dining rooms into therapy gym spaces. 

Throughout most of the pandemic, functional scores improved. Forman looks at the lockdowns as a positive thing: “It made all of us think and act safer,” she said.