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‘SOS Team’ Fights COVID-19 at Skilled Nursing Facilities | U.S. News Hospital Heroes

When the COVID-19 pandemic struck last spring, health authorities in Riverside County, California, tried to keep nursing homes and similar facilities up to speed on how to deal with the crisis through weekly phone calls. Three weeks into the crisis, it was clear that more help was needed.

On April 8, one skilled nursing facility in the region had to evacuate about 80 residents when dozens of employees didn’t show up for work. A handful of staffers had fallen ill with COVID-19; others were awaiting test results for the novel coronavirus; some were too afraid to come in, out of fear of becoming sick and infecting their families. The staff shortage threatened to jeopardize patient care, prompting the evacuation. Anxiety was spreading.

Health authorities decided they needed to act quickly to educate and support workers not only at that facility but at many others. Their aim was to keep the alarm from escalating and possibly compromising care for more patients.

“We realized we had to go beyond the weekly phone calls to help,” says Dr. Frank Flowers, the senior physician adviser for Riverside University Health System, where he consults with more than 50 skilled nursing facilities. He and his team provide education and support to nursing homes and other communal living facilities, such as memory care units.

Two days after the evacuation, Flowers, 65, joined more than 20 colleagues – county health officials, emergency medical services leaders and his health system – to brainstorm ways to offer even more assistance. And fast.

Skilled nursing facilities typically serve patients who don’t require long-term care but need rehabilitation for specific medical needs, such as recovery from joint replacement surgery. Some patients who are released from a hospital stay go to a skilled nursing facility until they can move safely in their homes, get in and out of bed without much assistance and use their cane, crutches, wheelchair or walker without danger.

Nursing homes provide provide permanent residence and supervised care. Most of the skilled nursing care facilities in Riverside County, about 50 miles southeast of Los Angeles, include both types of residents.

Dr. Frank Flowers is the senior physician advisor for skilled nursing facilities in Riverside County, California, for the Riverside University Health System. Flowers, other health system representatives and Riverside County health officials have developed the SOS project, in which teams of experts go to skilled nursing facilities to distribute playbooks on how to avoid being infected by the novel coronavirus, discuss best practices and when necessary provide protective gear. (Courtesy of Riverside University Health System)

In response to the mass evacuation, Flowers and his multi-agency colleagues devised a two-pronged approach: They would create and distribute a “playbook” to help guide these homes through the COVID-19 crisis, and they’d hit the road to offer in-person support. They called their roving squads “Skilled Nursing Facility Outreach Support Teams,” or SOS units.

Within days, the four SOS teams started fanning out to every corner of the sprawling,

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