Because of COVID-19, for the last several months it hasn’t been business as usual for most people—and that includes the State Offices of Rural Health (SORH). The SORH have addressed the ongoing public health crisis in a variety of ways—from helping set up rural clinics as sites for future vaccinations, to providing COVID-19-related training and equipment to rural providers. “Across the nation, SORH staff have been deployed to response teams and are working tirelessly to respond to questions from the public, collect and analyze data, identify sources for PPE and help rural facilities address workforce issues,” said Teryl Eisinger, CEO of NOSORH. “The work of SORH often goes untold. There are at least 50 stories of dedication and days on end without a break to respond to the virus. We thank every SORH for their work to improve the health of rural communities every day.”
Providing More Healthcare Access in North Carolina with HIT and CHWs
At the beginning of the pandemic, after HHS issued waivers to allow more providers to use telehealth to provide safe, socially distanced health care for all patients, states scrambled to get telehealth up and running.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has made telehealth the new industry standard for access to health care,” said Lakeisha Moore, Health Information Technology Manager at the North Carolina Office of Rural Health (NCORH). “The NCORH Health Information Technology (HIT) team, in partnership with the North Carolina Area Health Education Centers (NCAHEC), conducted live weekly webinars for eight weeks that highlighted telehealth best practices for 1,916 webinar participants.” Telehealth has now been expanded to 2.1 million Medicaid beneficiaries in the state, Moore said.
Community Health Workers (CHWs) are also playing an important role during the pandemic. John Resendes, NCORH Analytics and Innovation Manager, is leading the new Community Health Worker Initiative (CHWI) in North Carolina. Specifically, Resendes said, 327 CHWs are being hired to help people identified by contact tracing as being exposed to COVID-19 and connect them to needed services and support. NCORH helped select the seven vendors that will hire and oversee the CHWs, who will work with vulnerable and marginalized populations in 50 counties in the state, said Resendes. The effort is supported by short-term funding (ending December 31, 2020) from CHWI.
“Our office is the grantor of the funds, and while we ultimately ‘select’ the vendors, we made sure to be inclusive with our process and vet them through various community and statewide subject matter experts,” Resendes said. “Partnerships were critical during this process.”
Through the vendors, the CHWs will be provided with personal protective equipment and with tools like mobile hot spots, tablets and computers to connect people to NCCARE360, the nation’s first statewide coordinated care technology platform, Resendes said. “The CHWs will be using NCCARE360 to track patients’ progress through community resources and navigation, and help connect individuals to primary care.”
NCORH plans to measure the success of this effort by capturing four performance measures from the CHW vendors during the contract cycle. These include the number of individuals served who have COVID-19-related needs, telehealth encounters with COVID-19 patients, and NCCARE360 referrals made.
Using Information to Help Fight the Pandemic in Kentucky
As part of their response to the ongoing pandemic, the Kentucky Office of Rural Health (KORH) created a COVID-19 social media toolkit for rural providers, available on its COVID-19 Communication Resources page.
“The toolkit is a series of COVID-19-related social media posts around two broad themes: Public Health Messages and Staying Healthy at Home,” said Michael T. McGill, Jr., KORH Rural Project Manager. “It was sent out to a wide variety of rural stakeholders in Kentucky: local health departments, Critical Access Hospitals, other rural hospitals, Rural Health Clinics, Federally Qualified Health Centers, and other organizations served by KORH.” The toolkit also offers COVID-19-related educational graphics that organizations can adapt for their own use.
In another effort to spread information about the pandemic, the Summer 2020 edition of the KORH’s quarterly publication, The Bridge, is a special COVID-themed issue, “Voices from the Front Lines: Rural Kentucky Responds to the COVID-19 Pandemic.” The issue includes Q&A-style interviews with 19 clinicians, administrators, government officials, and volunteers who have aided with Kentucky’s response to the coronavirus outbreak in rural communities. The electronic version of the issue is available at https://ruralhealth.med.uky.edu/cerh-bridge.
Other SORH Engaging in Activities Targeting COVID-19:
The North Dakota Center for Rural Health (ND CRH) and Flex programs will be funding a COVID-19 Funding Tracking Tool and Technical Assistance for all North Dakota Critical Access Hospitals, said Brad Gibbens, ND CRH Acting Director. Additionally, COVID-19 information is posted on our website and is included in the monthly electronic newsletter, said Kylie Nissen, ND CRH Program Director. “If the information needs to be shared immediately, we directly email the information out to the target audience,” Nissen said. And COVID-19 information is also worked into their monthly DON (Director of Nursing) calls, she said. This follows their work during the early days of the pandemic when ND CRH did a weekly COVID information electronic news flash to its mailing list and held weekly COVID-related program meetings to update staff, Gibbens said.
To prepare for the distribution of a future COVID-19 vaccine, the New Jersey State Office of Rural Health (NJ SORH) is partnering with the state’s Vaccine Preventable Disease Program to build infrastructure and capacity to provide mass flu vaccination clinics at rural and non-rural Federally Qualified Health Centers (FQHCs), said Roslyn Council, Rural Health Project Officer at the NJ SORH.“The overall goal of this initiative is to increase routine flu vaccinations through outreach, public and professional education, and awareness,” Council said. “The centers will focus on populations at high risk for complications from influenza and COVID-19, including those with known coverage disparities, those with underlying illness, staff and residents of long-term care facilities, African Americans, and adults who are part of critical infrastructures, such as grocery store workers and food plant workers.” The program is working in four rural communities in the state.
The Texas State Office of Rural Health (TX SORH) has partnered with the Texas Organization of Rural and Community Hospitals to help distribute emergency medical supplies to rural hospitals within the State of Texas. “We assisted with the use of our Texas Department of Agriculture (which TX SORH is part of) warehouse and manpower in literally driving the supplies to each facility that requested some,” said Trenton Engledow, TX SORH Director.