Bethesda, in partnership with Thrifty White Pharmacy, administered its first doses of the long-awaited COVID-19 vaccine to residents and staff of its skilled nursing facility Tuesday, Dec. 29, ushering in hope for a brighter future.
Among the first to receive the vaccine was a cohort of long-standing staff eager to make their workplace safer for those who call Bethesda home and each other. Rachel Kujawa, RN and 20-year employee at Bethesda, received her vaccination during Tuesday’s distribution event.
“I chose to get the vaccine for my residents and their families. I want my residents to be able to see their family and friends in person again, that means a lot to me. I have a lot of hope for what this vaccine will do to give us a brighter future,” she said.
Residents at Bethesda are also excited about the promise that the vaccine holds. Fanchon Ellwood, a resident at Bethesda Grand, was the first resident to receive the vaccine. She shared her hope for a safer future. “I have a new great-grandbaby I want to meet, and this vaccine will make us all safer, so I can do that,” she said.
A large part of Bethesda’s vaccine distribution strategy involved a substantial investment of time and energy into vaccine education for residents and staff.
“It was important that everyone who is eligible to receive the vaccine is provided the information and education they need to make an informed and confident decision. Our staff spent whatever time was necessary to discuss concerns and provide information and educational resources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This process led to a high participation rate among staff and residents when vaccines were administered,” said Ashley Bormann, administrator at Bethesda. “We were able to vaccinate more than 200 people during our first round of distribution, and we anticipate receiving the additional doses needed to vaccinate additional staff, residents, and tenants within the coming weeks.”
It is well-known that seniors throughout the nation and our local communities have been disproportionately affected by the virus since its arrival in late winter. Following the arrival of the virus, Bethesda began its bold response by implementing broad-scale visitor restrictions, aggressive infection control measures, and screening procedures on March 11, resulting in drastic modifications to the daily operations of the organization.
“In the best interest of our residents, tenants, and clients, we made the decision to close our doors to the public and halt operations to some of our program areas in an effort to minimize risk at a time when so little was known about the virus. At the same time, we began to strategically source and heavily invest in personal protective equipment to help keep our staff protected. There wasn’t a safety precaution we didn’t consider using or evaluate as a strategy to keep our Bethesda community safe,” said Michelle Haefner, chief executive officer at Bethesda.
At the same time, Bethesda was preparing for the on-set of an unknown virus within the community, it made the sensitive decision to remain committed to full transparency as it related to COVID-19 within the organization.
“We felt it was not only the right thing for our residents, staff, and families but also for our entire community. As one of the largest employers in our county, and due to the large population of individuals we serve, it was important to safeguard the trust others have in us. We have worked to keep people aware and up-to-date on what was happening, so they could, in turn, keep those we serve, themselves, their families, and our community as safe as possible,” said Haefner.
In continuation of the support for transparency, Bethesda has been regularly communicating with residents, tenants, staff, and families regarding the impact of COVID-19 on our setting since the beginning. In addition to regular personal updates, Bethesda has kept its website current with weekly case reporting, chronological access to previous community updates, and other COVID-19 related news.
On May 13, 2020, Bethesda announced its partnership with a private lab to enable ongoing coronavirus testing for all staff on a weekly basis, and regular testing of all residents and tenants. This decision enabled Bethesda to minimize internal exposure by removing asymptomatic cases from the facility as soon as they were made aware, lessening the risk of transmission. By the time the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid implemented this prevention strategy in nursing homes nationwide in early September, Bethesda had already conducted more than 10,000 COVID-19 tests. Since Bethesda began regular testing in May, there have been a total of 89 care center residents, 29 housing tenants, and 211 total staff member coronavirus cases within its system of care.
“Many of these positive results were asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic. Although that has been the case for most, we have endured more heartache than our staff has ever had to burden before, with the passing of 16 members of our Bethesda family,” Haefner said.
Haefner acknowledged there is some vulnerability in sharing these numbers. Due to the length of ongoing testing history and size of the organization, Bethesda has a longer window of testing results available and a greater number of staff members in comparison to other senior care providers. Bethesda currently employs nearly 500 people and operates 248-licensed skilled nursing beds and 132 senior independent and assisted living apartments in Willmar and 20 assisted living apartments in Olivia, alongside its alternative community-based services.
“Although our care center is ranked as the sixth-largest skilled nursing facility in Minnesota, its unique design operates as a collection of interconnected smaller settings, or neighborhoods of approximately 20 residents each,” Haefner said. “Many in our community don’t realize that it would take combining nursing homes in Willmar, New London, Clara City, and Olivia into one, in order to reach the size of Bethesda. Even once you do that, you’d still be just shy of how many people Bethesda can serve in its skilled nursing facility. This scale factor is why our total cases may appear higher than other senior care providers, but also has played a lot into the success and vibrancy of our mission and ministry overall.”
In 2016, Bethesda completed a major construction project that consolidated skilled nursing services to one centralized campus. “This project not only brought us all together under one roof, but it enabled us to re-design our living settings into more defined spaces with a greater ability to shelter themselves from the remainder of the campus if needed,” said Haefner. “It is remarkable how the forethought in this neighborhood design concept not only carried a positive impact for quality of life, but we also know now how integral it has been in protecting our most vulnerable populations amid these unprecedented times.”
Amid the pandemic, Bethesda has continued to maintain its 5-star rating by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services “As a healthcare leader, but also a family member of someone who has been cared for by Bethesda, I am incredibly proud of the work done by our care teams within all of our program areas. Every day they not only do what is necessary to win the battle against this virus but continually maintain a keen focus on ensuring top-quality care for our residents, tenants, and clients,” said Haefner.
In recent months, Bethesda has been inspected multiple times by the Minnesota Department of Health as part of its infection control focused surveys. These surveys have continually closed with positive comments from the exiting surveyor on Bethesda’s infection control procedures, environmental precautions, staff education, and added safety measures.
“It is a cumulation of each strategy we’ve implemented that has helped us through this past year. Although we were not spared from the time in which our local communities were experiencing a COVID-19 crisis, we worked our response plan and maintained course, staving off as much of the virus as we possibly could at the time,” Haefner said. “Our most recent COVID-19 testing resulted in an almost zero percent positivity rate, which is astounding compared to where our local community has been in recent week.”
“As we look ahead to a brighter 2021, we will continue to keep our focus on being solution-oriented, continuing to respond quickly and proactively, and continuing to learn all we can. It is my focus to ensure that whenever Bethesda looks back at this period in its history, there will be no regrets knowing that we did everything within our means to care for those we are called to serve in all aspects of faith, community, and life,” Haefner said.