‘I think we are going in the right direction’

USA Healthcare CEO Frank Brown addresses COVID-19 and area long-term care facilities

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The Sanctuary at the Woodlands in Cullman (July 2020 file photo/The Cullman Tribune)

CULLMAN, Ala. – Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey on Thursday extended the state’s Safer at Home Order until April 9, with a few changes for hospitals and nursing homes. The updated order information sheet states, “Subject to reasonable restrictions, patients and residents will be allowed visits from as many as two caregivers (up from one) or as many as two visitors (up from one) at a time.” The Tribune sat down with the CEO of USA Healthcare, LLC, Frank Brown, to find out how the new order will affect the nursing home and assisted living facilities the company operates.

USA Healthcare operates several facilities in Cullman, including Cullman Health & Rehab Center, The Folsom Center, Woodland Village, Woodland Haus Assisted Living and The Sanctuary at the Woodlands. In addition to Ivey’s modified Safer at Home Order, USA Healthcare is required to adhere to all federal guidelines set by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS).

Those guidelines regarding indoor visitation state:

  • Have no new onset of COVID-19 cases in the last 14 days and not be currently conducting outbreak testing.
  • Limit the number of visitors per resident, limit the number of visitors in the building at one time and limit visitors’ movement inside the building.
  • Visitors must wear a mask that covers their mouth and nose and practice social distancing while visiting their loved one during their entire visit.
  • Even if the nursing home meets these criteria; it can’t allow indoor visitation if the county COVID-19 positivity rate is greater than 10%.
  • CMS allows nursing homes to require additional infection control measures such as COVID-19 testing or proof of a recent negative test.

The Alabama Nursing Home Association (ANHA) shortly after Ivey addressed the state Thursday morning issued a press release stating, “Alabama nursing homes are experiencing a dramatic improvement in their fight against COVID-19. New cases of COVID-19 in Alabama nursing homes have declined 93% from their high point the week of December 20, 2020 to the week of February 21, 2021.”

The full release can be viewed at https://anha.org/alabama-nursing-homes-report-declining-covid-19-cases-federal-visitation-restrictions-continue/.

Brown cautioned, “We might have won some major battles, but we have not yet won the war. We are going in the right direction, but I think everybody needs to understand that what’s going on in the community, what color they are (According to the Alabama Department of Public Health’s Risk Indicator)- green, yellow or red- is going to have a lot to do with that. Cullman, for a long time, was red. We still had some visitation. We didn’t have the doors open saying, ‘Please, everybody come visit.’ We consider ourselves as a small community in each of our facilities.”

Despite the many obstacles during the past year with COVID-19, USA Healthcare’s facilities adapted to make sure residents could see family, said Brown. “We’ll still be doing this by appointment. We still have federal regulations we have to abide by despite what the governor would like to do, what I would like to do, and I think everyone in our business would like to be wide open and have folks come in. I think that the mental anguish has probably been greater than the physical anguish even though so many people died.”

He continued, “I think we are going in the right direction. I am glad the governor stayed with the mask order. I think that people need to understand that I think that’s how you get there. We don’t have that big of a percentage (of the general population) vaccinated yet, but we are doing better on that and we will get there.”

Brown said the restrictions placed on visitation in hospitals and his facilities make sense to him, explaining, “If the community is doing well, our facilities reflect that. We do about the same as the community does and there’s been many studies that show that. We’d like to get to normal, though. We’d like to get back to children coming in to visit and sing for them. We’d like to get back to visitors being able to come by any time of day. We just aren’t there yet, but we are getting closer.”

While things might not be back to “business as usual,” Brown stressed, “It’s still an improvement on where we have been in 2020 and 2021. It’s still restrictive and still much more restrictive than anyone would like, but nonetheless, it is what it is. We just follow the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines, and we are told by them and by HHS (United States Department of Health and Human Services) and CMS what we can and can’t do. If we don’t comply, we run the risk of it going as far as losing your business. While we seem like bad guys, we’re not. We are just doing what we are told to do and required to do to keep our Medicaid and Medicare licenses.”

The winter months were very tough on the facilities operated by USA Healthcare, but things have improved significantly, and Brown reported that currently, the facilities are free of any COVID cases other than patients admitted into an alternate site at The Sanctuary. He also warned that the improvements will be short-lived if people in the community don’t all do their part.

“It won’t stay that way and continue to improve if people start doing things we know don’t work like not wearing a mask, not social distancing and staying away from big gatherings and all those things that do it,” he said.  “How the community goes, the nursing home goes. If everybody wants to open back up, wear a mask, socially distance, wash your hands and stay away from meetings indoors with a lot of people.”

Many of USA Healthcare’s residents have been vaccinated; Brown estimated that 85% of eligible residents have received the vaccine. He said some were not eligible due to medical reasons.

Brown said he plans to have residents resume group activities such as movie nights in small groups in the near future.

He said he understands frustrations regarding the restrictions remaining on nursing homes and assisted living facilities. “I get it. I’ve been doing this for 45 years. It’s not going to happen very often that I hadn’t already had it happen. The people who work in this business care about people. I have workers who will work every day, 24 hours if you ask them. I am happy to be involved with people that care that much about it to make sure the people they know and love are going to be taken care of no matter how much they have to do.”

Finally, Brown urged people to do what they need to do, saying, “If we don’t get some of these variants in here- if we get those variants, God only knows we are going to be right back where we were at our worst time. It’s not an opinion anymore. If you’ll wear a mask, wash your hands, socially distance and stay away from large gatherings inside that’s got poor ventilation, you’ll stay safe most likely. Unless someone in your family brings it to you. These new variants spread faster and are more deadly. It’s not an opinion anymore. It’s a proven fact. If a community misbehaves, they are going to get COVID again or a new strain of it.”

Read Alabama’s modified Safer at Home Order at https://bit.ly/30jvBSM.

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Christy Perry

christy@cullmantribune.com