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Intermountain Healthcare has been crucial in the fight against COVID-19

Intermountain Healthcare has been crucial in the fight against COVID-19

In early April 2020, a group of doctors, nurses, and respiratory therapists from Intermountain Healthcare waited at the Salt Lake airport to board a plane that would take them the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in the US. Despite the risks, the Intermountain caregivers were eager to learn how to treat patients who’d contacted the deadly virus and give a much-needed reprieve to their New York colleagues who’d been dealing with the devastating realities of a surge of patients overwhelming their hospitals for weeks.

“Every day was a hard day but filled with many little wins,” says Libbey Steed, an RN at Dixie Regional Medical Center, and a member of Intermountain’s COVID response team deployed to New York. “Maybe we helped someone breathe who couldn’t, maybe we held their hand and provided comfort, maybe we offered a smiling face. Every day we did something for patients that helped make life during that difficult time a little better and hopefully a little easier.”

The challenges everyone has faced during the pandemic have been both simple and complex, short-term and long-lasting. Healthcare will likely never be the same. Intermountain has been at the forefront of the COVID battle, learning, listening, and offering innovative solutions to complex problems with the ultimate goal of stemming the tides of the deadly virus.

Intermountain delivers a quick response to high demand for COVID-19 testing

When COVID  began to spread in early March, testing and contact tracing active cases were 

priorities for the state. The demand for COVID testing increased exponentially in a matter of days. Intermountain opened their first testing site on March 16, and within weeks expanded to 24 sites across Utah and one mobile unit deployed to hot spots where positive cases were increasing. Since March, Intermountain has provided over 320,000 tests at curbside locations and over 21,000 at the mobile unit. 

Using technology to tackle COVID-19

Intermountain was an early adopter of telehealth services, launching its first use in 2012 to help smaller facilities access medical specialists at larger facilities like Intermountain Medical Center in Murray. Since that time, Intermountain has launched additional telehealth services including the on-demand urgent care service called ConnectCare as well as the My Health+ app, a simple, comprehensive tool people can use to manage every aspect of their healthcare plan. 

The app also includes a COVID symptom checker to help people get answers and access care. Since the pandemic began, more than 240,000 people have used the symptom checker.  All of these things have helped the demand for telehealth since the pandemic began. A survey conducted by the Harris Poll says 42 percent of Americans have used telehealth during the pandemic. Intermountain hosted 7,000 virtual visits with patients in March 2020, and 200,000 in July. Those numbers continue to remain high as people appreciate the convenience and additional safety of their virtual visits. 

Additionally, as people began to struggle with the influx of information and changes to their daily lives, Intermountain began hosting daily, live Q&A sessions on Facebook. Medical experts in infectious diseases, mental health, exercise and nutrition, and numerous other disciplines helped people stay up-to-date on current pandemic guidelines and offered tools to support their health and well-being.

 With over 72,000 followers, the videos provided a direct communication channel for Intermountain to provide consistent and credible information from health experts directly to community members during the pandemic.

Supporting mental health needs of the community

As isolation, stress, and uncertainty caused by the pandemic increased in our communities, Intermountain quickly saw a need for increased mental health support. Nationally, the World Health Organization reported a 60 percent increase in domestic violence in April. Domestic violence advocates in Utah saw similar increases

Within a matter of weeks, the result of that effort was the launch of Intermountain’s Emotional Health Relief Hotline, a free resource that connects callers with trained experts who provide self-care tools, peer support, treatment options, and crisis resources. The hotline has served more than 4,500 callers with diverse needs over the past six months.

“We realized we needed to come together with structures and support not only for caregivers and patients, but for the wider community,” says Morissa Henn, DrPH, Community Health director. “We know from past disasters the effects of a crisis can last a long time and contribute to a sense of emotional and psychological distress. The Emotional Health Relief Hotline has been a huge opportunity for improving mental well-being at a challenging time.”

Additionally, Intermountain began offering free virtual guided mindfulness classes, home exercise programs, a catalog of self-care articles, and other helpful resources to help people manage their health while staying home.

Unpreceded collaboration

On April 17, 2020, Intermountain launched ProjectProtect, a record-breaking grassroots effort to manufacture medical-grade personal protective equipment (PPE) for frontline caregivers fighting COVID. The project was a unique collaboration between Intermountain Healthcare, Latter-Day Saint Charities, and University of Utah Health.

Over the course of five weeks, more than 57,000 volunteers from Utah and Idaho donated more than 750,000 hours, which was the largest Utah-based volunteer effort since the 2002 Olympic Winter Games. The project produced:

  • 5.7 million medical-grade masks
  • 300,000 masks donated to the state of Utah for public use
  • 200,000 masks donated to Latter-day Saint Charities for use for vulnerable populations outside of the Intermountain West
  • 50,000 face shields
  • 65,000 reusable isolation gowns

“There are many heroes during this pandemic, including our incredible caregivers,” says Marc Harrison, MD, CEO and president of Intermountain Healthcare. “But all the people in the community who participated in ProjectProtect are also heroes, and through their actions, they’ve helped to contain the spread of COVID and protect many of the most vulnerable people in our communities. We’re grateful for their service.”

Intermountain leaders also helped guide Utah’s response to COVID by serving on the state’s COVID Task Force, which is lead by Lt. Governor Spencer Cox, and on the national COVID Healthcare Coalition, which unites healthcare organizations, technology firms, nonprofits, academia, and startups in a coordinated response.

Innovative and timely solutions

As office buildings, surgical centers, and physician offices temporarily closed or drastically reduced their capacity in the early days of the pandemic, many caregivers were redeployed to other roles to avoid furloughs.

Jeanna Burrill, a nurse navigator for the Neurosciences Institute at Intermountain Medical Center, reached out to more than 700 SelectHealth members during her eight-week redeployment assignment who were identified as at the highest risk for the virus. They included a woman with kidney issues whose husband had been laid off and who was concerned about her ability to afford a life-saving prescription. Burrill helped her get the care and resources her family needed.

“My redeployment had similarities to my role as a nurse navigator as far as being a patient advocate,” says Burrill. “During the calls I’d talk to people about their health and personal concerns, and often I’d connect them with resources and sometimes loop in a care manager with SelectHealth. The idea was to reduce the cost of care and make sure these highest-risk patients knew how to protect themselves and their families.”

In addition to redeploying caregivers to support other areas of need, many administrative and business employees transitioned to working from home. At the start of the year, about 1,000 of Intermountain’s 41,000 employees worked at home. Today, about 10,000 are working from home and a recent survey shows 89 percent of people like it.

Reflecting on her time in New York, Steed says she felt humbled to be considered a healthcare hero. “As healthcare professionals, we feel compelled to be a smiling face when inside we really want to cry, to be stoic when the odds of survival aren’t great for so many,” she says. “Even during a pandemic, we continue to believe our next patient is the one who’ll recover and live to be a ’hero‘ for the next person.”

Jeni Jones is the communication specialist for Intermountain Healthcare. To learn more about Intermountain, visit intermountainhealthcare.org.

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