MSF brings COVID-19 support to Houston nursing homes

MSF reaches out to nursing homes in Texas and partners with nursing schools to build infection prevention and control expertise

USA 2020 © Ali Lapetina/MSF

USA 2020 © Ali Lapetina/MSF

Houston/New York, September 10, 2020—After completing its COVID-19 response project for nursing homes and adult care facilities in Michigan, the international, medical humanitarian organization Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) is bringing its expertise to Texas, another pandemic hotspot in the United States.

Nursing home deaths make up more than 30 percent of Texas’s total coronavirus fatalities since March. More than 23,000 residents of 1,093 nursing homes across Texas have tested positive for COVID-19. Of those, more than 3,200 have died, according to state data, as of August 27.

“The elderly are among the most vulnerable to the disease,” said Whitney Ward, MSF emergency coordinator. “Our Houston program will assess the needs in care facilities and see where MSF can add value in the areas of staff wellness and infection control.”

In Michigan, MSF conducted in-person infection prevention and control (IPC) trainings and provided technical support and wellness sessions to staff and residents at more than 50 nursing homes and adult care facilities. The Houston program will provide the same services. Two medical teams, each comprised of nurses and a wellness specialist, are carrying out IPC assessments of nursing home facilities and creating tailored IPC action plans for both clinical and non-clinical staff. The teams will then conduct trainings, provide technical assistance, and, if needed, embed an MSF nurse for additional guidance and support. Wellness specialists design tailored programs to help facility staff manage the additional stress of working in an environment that’s become even more demanding due to COVID-19.

“The staff are the frontline workers, in a confined environment where they have frequent and close physical contact with residents and other staff throughout the day, during a pandemic,” said Kira Smith, MSF infectious disease nurse. “The staff face dangers when providing direct care, like feeding, grooming, and moving the residents. But then there’s also the emotional stress that they have been carrying for more than five months. Not only is the staff overworked because of staff shortages, but when their residents get the virus or die from it, they grieve for people whom they’ve known and cared for for years.”

MSF has developed expertise in mental health care hand in hand with direct medical care programs over the organization’s nearly 50-year history of working in humanitarian crises around the world. Its wellness programs for essential staff at nursing homes was developed when MSF first began responding to COVID-19 outbreaks sweeping across nursing homes in Belgium, France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal. MSF teams in the US tailored the wellness program to fit the specific needs in its Michigan pilot project and will do the same in Texas.

“The risks associated with COVID-19 will be with us for the foreseeable future,” said Ward. “The challenges of nursing home staff wellness and of infection control extend well beyond the current pandemic. We have sought to partner with local educational institutions so that our efforts can be sustained over the long-haul.”

In Houston, MSF has signed a memorandum of understanding with the University of Texas, Houston, School of Nursing, so that MSF’s IPC Training Tool Kit can be incorporated into the nursing school curriculum and concerted efforts can be made to promote more practicums for nursing students at long-term care facilities.

MSF also plans to expand its outreach to nursing schools across the US as the need for IPC support in nursing homes is a national issue.

“Schools are part of the community, so we have the community taking care of its community,” said Smith, who also led IPC efforts with MSF in the Navajo Nation this spring. “This is one sustainable solution that can address the heavy toll on the elderly during this pandemic and beyond.”

In the US , MSF’s COVID-19 response teams worked with migrant farmworkers in Florida, helped people who are homeless and housing insecure in New York City, supported Native American communities in the Navajo Nation and Pueblos, and trained essential workers in nursing homes and adult foster care facilities for the elderly in Michigan. In Puerto Rico, MSF has three mobile medical teams to provide care at patients' homes or at pop-up clinics.