By Matt Phillion
Well over 18 months into the COVID-19 pandemic, taking stock of lessons learned and next steps can be a challenge. The industry has encountered a lot in a very compressed time frame, so focusing on specific areas of success as well as ways to improve can help highlight the positive and provide a better road map for what’s to come.
Johonniuss Chemweno is CEO of VIP StarNetwork, an organization that has been running testing and vaccination events across the country with great success. He notes that state-level COVID-19 responses, however, have been patchwork at best.
“What we’re seeing on the ground level is a variety of messages and solutions depending on the state,” says Chemweno. “Some states have done a better job in their leadership attempting to get society back to what it was before COVID.”
Looking at various metrics—mandates, testing, what’s working and what isn’t—has had a real impact on stakeholders in healthcare leadership. It’s been a battle of long-term approaches based on short-term needs, Chemweno notes.
“The political side has impeded efforts in the way of implementing what we need to do to reduce the anxiety and pressure our hospital systems are undergoing,” he says. “We’re looking at various models that have better outcomes in various states, but we’re also trying to better understand workforce development, trying to support a healthy workforce and reducing burnout for our clinicians and nurses.”
The airline and hospitality industries in particular remain challenging, and there is a need to create quality assurance and safety programs to build a trusted environment for those workers and customers.
“I like to always go back to workforce development—looking at the most recent mandate that healthcare workers need to be vaccinated,” says Chemweno. “We have a nursing shortage, a physician shortage, so we need to [have] a diligent approach in creating the right policies. We have increased our efforts in training and incentives for our workforce, ultimately to create a stronger workforce that we can rely on during the public health emergency.”
Organizations like VIP StarNetwork try to create programs offering tailored messaging not just for compliance, but also to get the right information into the hands of healthcare workers across the board. They’re also looking at avenues to address the growing shortage in healthcare.
“We try to encourage high school students to go into that setting, creating technical-based programs, continued education–based programs, and mentorship programs to encourage participation,” says Chemweno. “How can we get younger students exposure to the right field of medicine, whether that is pathology, laboratories, nursing programs, or others? Every one of these roles is extremely important to fill.”
A familiar face in the community
On a macro level, Chemweno says, municipalities and schools are offering incentives and making a big push to bring workers into the healthcare system, especially nurses. Organizations like his are also going out into communities with lower access to healthcare, specifically communities of color.
“Our ability is to drive the same demographic to serve the community,” says Chemweno. “We’ve made a strong push for this in New York.” The organization sends envoys “from the same community, who are a great ear to listen to their hesitations about vaccination and other forms of healthcare.”
Connecting with current and prospective patients on their terms, listening to and addressing their concerns, makes a huge difference, Chemweno says.
“We’ve done a great job encouraging healthcare professionals to work in their community, and listen to the people and community they connect with to assist them to decide to receive the vaccine,” he says. “The secondary benefit of this is almost our primary message: ‘Come out to learn more about new services in your community.’ And when we’re there, the questions we’re asking aren’t just about vaccination. We’re asking: ‘Do you have a primary care physician?’ ‘Do you have a pediatrician for your children?’ ‘Tell us about additional medical questions you might have.’ We’re being brought into discussions at a higher level of healthcare, focusing on economic needs but also tailoring the messaging to the actual community they live in and serve. These are smart people who want to extend their services that can have a fundamental impact in these communities.”
This outreach can include events like block parties, where professionals can have open conversations about topics like vaccine hesitation and tailor the response based on what they’re hearing. These in-community events also offer a chance for hands-on assistance with mobile vaccination pods, which have been used in the Navajo nation as well as other communities around the country.
“We’ve implemented these in places where there is little or no access not just to COVID vaccination, but women’s health and orthopedics and other needed services,” says Chemweno. “Some of these locations don’t have the fiberoptics for teleconferencing, and we’re able to speak with them, bring medications, and talk with them about their care.”
While organizations like VIP StarNetwork have had success during the past year and a half with outreach and vaccinations, they have been preemptively planning for worst-case scenarios as the seasons change, anticipating that COVID-19 care needs will also change. “When we’re talking with people now, it’s ‘Get ready and don’t wait in terms of resources available,’ ” says Chemweno.
They are preparing for distribution of booster shots, increasing their ability to set up mobile pods, and bringing out more staff into the communities they visit.
“The constituents who live in these communities should be preparing for a worst-case scenario,” he says. “Toilet paper, food, water supply, making sure they have points of contact in the community, as well as understanding all the programs available locally. When we’re talking with patients and teams, we want them to be aware of the services available now and, if the government pulls back on resources, to have points of contact if things take a turn for the worse.”
With the weather about to turn cold, organizations like VIP StarNetwork are preparing for a challenging flu season after last winter, when the flu was almost nonexistent due to masking and social distancing. “We’re preparing for a very sick season that could impact hospitals and clinics,” says Chemweno.
He says that means partnering with manufacturers for in-demand supplies like nasal swabs, reagents, flu shots, vaccines, and other basics, while also keeping a close eye on state regulations and CDC guidelines as they evolve. “We’re keeping an eye on the supply chain as well as the service capabilities—do we have enough nurses and other professionals to help our communities at a high level?” says Chemweno. “We’re bulking up on all of these different verticals.”
The supply chain question has impacted not just healthcare, but most industries in some form. “It’s an interesting point to highlight for our health leaders,” says Chemweno. “We knew PPE was nonexistent in the beginning, and we had streamlined our supply chain to three or four major vendors. That affected the entire healthcare industry because no one system could receive what they needed. But we’ve seen these large healthcare systems go back to their existing supply chain.”
Thus, if a downturn in supply chain occurs, many organizations will be at risk—not only larger organizations, but also dental offices, independent specialists, primary care offices, and more. “What we’ve done is strategically establish our own direct relationships that span back to before the pandemic to help understand what we can supply to our organizations who need essential medical supplies and equipment,” says Chemweno. “I would encourage healthcare leaders to diversity their supply chain past the traditional distributors.”
Successes to carry forward
While healthcare is preparing for a tough winter, it’s worth pointing out some of the developments that emerged during the pandemic and can continue to help underserved communities even once COVID-19 is in the rear-view mirror.
Chemweno points out the widely applicable success his organization had in the entertainment industry. Because entertainment professionals are constantly on the move, they were able to make great use of mobile testing and vaccination pods. These professionals work long, grueling hours that can prevent them from seeing a physician in a timely manner, and thus have long needed better access to care.
“We understood our success in the film industry well before COVID—this was something great we could take to communities that have little access to care,” says Chemweno. “It’s been interesting based on the multitude of specialists, mental health resources, and more we were able to extend to these communities. We were able to learn that what we were doing could be spread across various sectors and communities, such as people of color, who have traditionally not had access.”
The silver lining in much of healthcare during the pandemic has been technological innovations such as VIP StarNetwork’s upcoming Access Health app, which could have major implications for efficient, readily available healthcare access. There is still much work to be done, however.
“My biggest hope is we can go back to an unpolarized environment, where people can share their level of vaccine hesitancy and come together to create a message that will make people comfortable to get vaccinated based on scientific facts,” says Chemweno. “That’s our biggest hope, and I think it’s starting to come together, connecting at these outlets like town halls, block parties, and more. It’s working in New York—can we do it in Atlanta, in Mississippi, in the Midwest and Southwest? I think we can.”
Matt Phillion is a freelance writer covering healthcare, cybersecurity, and more. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.