The Houston Health and Fire departments have joined forces to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Since the elderly are among the most vulnerable to the novel coronavirus, members of HHD and HFD are fanning out across the Houston metro visiting nursing homes and longterm health facilities to help them deter COVID cases, and also work with them on how to deal with residents if any test positive.
“It’s all day every day,” said HHD’s Charlene Offiong, who is helping administer the outreach effort. “It’s definitely ongoing. A lot of facilities were not aware of what to do.”
Offiong said Houston Fire Department personnel meet with HHD staff at the Health Department to plan and discuss strategy and where they will go. Then teams of three or four, divided between HHD and HFD, fan out to make their inspections and educate nursing home administration and staff on how to defend against this novel coronavirus.
Nursing homes need all the help they can get. Full of elderly residents, among the most vulnerable to the potentially deadly virus, they range from well equipped and well prepared to dire need of advice and assistance.
Offiong said the teams began the outreach in April and will continue until they visit all of the roughly 250 nursing homes in the city.
“Some were very prepared, some were not,” she said. “Quite a few didn’t have enough PPE,” or personal protective equipment, such as face masks, shields, gloves and the like. “The teams went throughout the city, anywhere the City of Houston has jurisdiction — all facilities within the city.”
The HHD-HFD teams provide nursing home administration and staff with information on how to be prepared with PPE, testing, infection control, and correct cleaning procedures. Also, HHD and HFD team members test and swab residents, inspect the facilities for how they screen employees, and how their visitor policies are structured.
HFD Captain Lavalius Gordon said the teams blend talents and missions to help nursing homes.
“We are a bridge to the health side,” he said.
Fire Department personnel team up with HHD personnel on the morning of site visits. They divide into small teams, usually up to a couple or three from each department, and visit a nursing home. They have to pass a temperature check and gear up with masks and other personal protective equipment. Then HFD personnel assist with testing and swabbing the residents.
“We collect data that the HHD needs. We’ve tested hundreds of residents,” said HFD Captain Joshua Vogel. “We are not engaged in anything related to fire protection. That’s for our inspectors. We go there with the Health Department to give a different perspective.”
Vogel said the HHD-HFD teams visit all types of facilities “from small mom-and-pop facilities to the big seven-acre facilities.”
“It’s always changing. We have to adjust to needs and facilities,” Vogel said.
Offiong said some of the inspection guideline tools the teams use come from the Centers for Disease Control. They use those guideline tools during their site visits, often splitting up with some team members interviewing facility administrators and personnel while other team members tour and inspect the facility.
Meanwhile, the effort to protect nursing homes and their vulnerable residents against the spread of COVID-19 goes on.
“We are right now continually monitoring nursing home outbreak detection and investigating mitigation,” Offiong said.
This HHD-HFD collaboration is new, but very beneficial. Vogel said the efforts merges their different missions and effectively expands their outreach.
“We’re helping them collect the data,” he said. “We never had a lot of interaction with HHD, so we’re learning a lot too. Their contact tracing is impressive. They’re about spread and containment. We’re about patient care. They’re global. We have different perspectives. What they’re trying to get ahead of, man it’s daunting.”
Gordon added that it has opened his eyes too.
“This is really good for us at the Fire Department. We are able to go back and tell our people how to protect themselves. We’ve been out there and seen what’s going on, and we can say, ‘Hey, this is real. You’d better gown up and slow down.’ ”
But their teamwork is up to the task of improving health safety for the metro area’s most vulnerable.
“That was one of the best collaborations we’ve had to benefit public health,” Gordon said. “We definitely want to thank the Health Department. This has been very educational.”