URBANA — Virtual medical visits, hotlines, drive- thru blood draws, curbside convenient care, temperature checks at the doors, an end to sitting around waiting rooms — who knew a year ago that health care would look like this?
The impact of COVID-19 has been horrific in terms of the lives lost, illness and disabilities, said Carle Foundation Hospital President Lynne Barnes.
“Sometimes, it takes my breath away to think about what we’ve been through,” she said.
At the same time, much has been learned over the past year as the pandemic pushed health care providers to do some things differently, Barnes said, “and we’re becoming better for it.”
“Undoubtedly, there will be some of these changes that will not go away,” she said. “And I think, as a leadership team, we will continue to evolve as this situation evolves. And we’re going to want to keep the things that make it good for patients.”
Hotlines to handle inquiries — such as whether symptoms were indicative of COVID-19, whether to get tested and whether quarantining was necessary — were one of the first things medical providers in the area made available as the pandemic picked up steam.
Since March 2020, Carle Health’s COVID-19 hotline has handled more than 217,000 calls, Barnes said.
Along with that came a need to expand lab capacity to handle testing.
The Carle lab processed its first coronavirus test on March 13, ramped up on equipment and staffing and recently crossed the 400,000 mark, she said.
And while coronavirus tests may taper off, they’re unlikely to go away entirely, Barnes said.
“It’s now just part of our lab testing,” she said.
Carle had dabbled in virtual visits — in which patients and medical providers connect through devices instead of in person — before the pandemic began, and had always wanted to expand that option, Barnes said.
Now, she said, “virtual visits for us are a way of life.”
OSF Heart of Mary Medical Center also wanted to do more with virtual visits, and these days, those types of visits are working for not all but many medical needs, said Dr. Jared Rogers, that hospital’s president.
The big turnaround that opened the door for more virtual visits was insurance providers being willing to cover them, he said.
Now, insurance providers see virtual visits as less costly and often better for patients, he said.
And as horrific as the pandemic has been, Rogers said, the expansion of virtual visits is going to be one of the changes that lasts.
“We’re going to see virtual care as mainstream,” he predicted.
At the same time, Rogers said one change that hasn’t been for the better is the level at which many people have placed their own medical care on hold.
That’s been too slow to turn around, he said.
“People need to get back in the swing of taking care of themselves,” Rogers said.
Rogers and Barnes said one of the toughest challenges their hospitals have faced during the pandemic has been the need to restrict visiting policies.
Patients want their loved ones near when they’re ill, and their loved ones want to be at their sides, they said.
“We still wanted people to have access to loved ones, but we knew that wouldn’t be safe,” Barnes said.
While some people didn’t understand these restrictions in the first weeks they were in place, Rogers recalled, it didn’t take long for everyone to see the risks the pandemic posed.
It was very moving to see nurses offering patients their cellphones so they could speak to family members, he said.
Visitor restrictions have since loosened at both hospitals, though they’re still not quite back to what they were pre-pandemic.
“I think, before too long, with vaccines increasing, we will be able to open even more,” Rogers said.
Shorter waits, less congestion
Christie Clinic Clinical Services Director Michelle Antonacci said her agency, too, has had to find new ways to provide care to the community since the pandemic began.
“Some of the ways we have cared for our patients have worked well and we anticipate they will continue as options or opportunities for care in the future — including telehealth, curbside convenient care, drive-up flu vaccination clinics and reduced waiting room times by allowing patients to wait in the parking lot until their appointment time,” she said.
It’s also important to keep in mind that the pandemic isn’t over yet, and precautions need to continue to keep everyone safe, Antonacci said.
Barnes said Carle also made several changes to reduce wait times and congestion at its labs, adding the opportunity to schedule lab tests, running a drive-thru for blood draws in Urbana, and then, when it became too cold for the drive-thru, adding a temporary lab/blood-draw site in vacant space at Carle at the Fields.
Both OSF Heart of Mary and Carle Foundation Hospital developed new services to help keep COVID-19 patients who did not have severe symptoms out of the hospital and care for them at home.
OSF’s Pandemic Worker Program has provided patients with kits that include medical-supply needs and information, and daily digital check-ins from OSF staff members.
Carle began a new approach last fall in which COVID-19 patients seen in the emergency room who weren’t ill enough to need hospitalization were sent home, with a doctor or advance practitioner calling them daily.
Carle has had more than 500 patients in that program and it’s been very helpful and comforting to them to know they’ll get a call from a provider every day as they recover at home, Barnes said.
Carle is currently looking at possibilities to use this approach for other diseases down the road, she said.
As medical providers have pivoted to deliver care in new ways, many have also added administering COVID-19 vaccine to their responsibilities in cooperation with the Champaign-Urbana Public Health District.
Carle has done more than 60,000 COVID-19 vaccine shots — seven days a week — at the former Dress Barn store in Champaign, and plans to keep that going strong, Barnes said.
“Isn’t that something?” she marveled.
Rogers said OSF Heart of Mary saw a need for vaccinations to better serve the northern part of the county and worked with the health district and village of Rantoul to offer vaccine clinics there.
“We looked into that with partnering with the village, and said, ‘We can do this,’” he recalled.
Pre-pandemic, Rogers said, OSF wasn’t collaborating that much in this community with its nearby neighbor, the University of Illinois, but that’s changed.
“It will probably grow because of this and the connections we’ve made,” he said.
Rogers said he’s seen health care providers and others in Champaign County pull closer together, and he believes that collaboration will endure after the pandemic.
Members of the community have also pitched in, contributing food, personal protective equipment and prayers for patients and health care workers, Rogers said, and “that has been incredible.”
It’s been heartwarming to see everyone work together for the betterment of the community, Rogers said.
“It really makes this job fun,” he said.