I work as the medical director for a non-profit agency that serves people who are currently or formerly homeless. I am trained as a psychiatrist and have previously worked in local government. I live in the county in Washington State, where people have died from COVID-19.
Here are my recommendations for other physician leaders in other regions, particularly those who work in outpatient, non-profit settings. I hope this information can help you if once COVID-19 arrives in your area.
Start talking with other physician leaders that intersect with your work now. Talk about how you all will coordinate together. How can your teams all work together to ensure that only people who need ED-level services are sent there? What sort of screening will you all do? If people who don’t have homes need to self-isolate, where can they go? Establish a communication system now because when COVID-19 arrives, you don’t want to fumble through that. If you haven’t met these other people yet, meet them now.
Start talking with physicians who work in your local government. My observations thus far are that physicians in government haven’t been active in planning for systemwide medical issues, and not because they’re not interested, but rather because they are overwhelmed, and there’s not enough of them. Start asking questions like: If people who are homeless need quarantine, where should they go? Has the city or county started talking with the hospitals to determine a system of where people with COVID-like symptoms should go? Who will get tested? Is there a centralized phone number clinics can call to alert county authorities of outbreaks? What sort of communication is the city or county having with the state?.
Keep up the advocacy with state and local partners with questions related to system processes. The state and local partners likely won’t have answers, particularly if you serve underserved patients. Since COVID-19 is affecting everyone, governments are thinking about the majority of people, many of whom are the “worried well,” can self-isolate, can go see their own doctors, etc. People without the same resources can’t do the same prevention and early intervention activities, so it is vital to keep following up with government partners, so they don’t forget about these underserved populations. (This also includes populations that may not seek health care services, like immigrant and refugee populations.) If you can keep up the questions to your physician partners in government, they will feel empowered to keep asking their partners (e.g., state and federal agencies) for information.
Start teaching stuff to your non-medical partners. Sometimes physicians and nurses forget what we know; we think everyone knows what we know. Agencies that serve homeless populations often don’t have medical staff, so their leadership and line staff may have questions like, “Will an air purifier eliminate COVID-19?” or “Will hydrogen peroxide kill COVID-19?” People may not know HOW to wash their hands. Advocate with your agency leadership to get hygiene supplies now (because most of the suppliers locally are sold out) and make it easy for your staff to practice good hygiene. And don’t make assumptions that people know how to do hygiene stuff.
A small minority of people will do things you won’t like. There are people calling health care agencies pretending that they are the WHO or CDC and are asking for financial information so they can steal money. Supplies, like face masks, may suddenly go missing. Prepare for these sort of disappointing behaviors.
You can’t overcommunicate. In the face of uncertainty, frustration arises. Don’t lie, either; tell people what you know and don’t know. That way, they will be more likely to trust you when you do have recommendations.
Support your staff. You can’t rely on your staff to take care of other people if your staff don’t think you are taking care of them. We heard a comment today during a phone call that an estimated 40 percent of staff will be out of the office due to illness. Some may also call out because of fear. We can appeal to the better natures of our teams, but they won’t rise to the challenge if they think we don’t care about them. And if they don’t think we don’t care about them, then they won’t have the emotional and cognitive capacity to care for patients. (This applies to local government, too: They must take care of the agencies that provide services on their behalf, or otherwise the agencies will feel unsupported and may not extend themselves.)
People are expressing and demonstrating anxiety, which is fine—there are reasons to worry. But there are things we can do as leaders to acknowledge and mitigate that anxiety. Start now.
Image credit: Shutterstock.com