WILTON — Doctors don’t make house calls anymore, but nurses do and that’s just what the nurses at Visiting Nurse & Hospice of Fairfield County have been doing more and more since the COVID-19 pandemic changed life here. They have been making them virtually and physically and they’ve been fielding lots and lots of questions.

“We are the public health nurses in Wilton,” Sharon Bradley, the agency’s president and CEO said last week. As such, her staff has undertaken health checks for many of the residents of the town’s congregate facilities.

“One or two of our staff members go to the sites each day checking temperatures, respiratory rates and oxygen levels through an oximeter,” she said. The purpose is to identify early signs of an infectious process that could be related to COVID-19.

The practice has been valuable. “We have been able to identify some early changes in residents at congregate settings and intervene with doctors to prevent the need for hospitalization,” she said.

In addition, they’ve worked with the residents and staff of the independent, assisted-living and nursing home facilities, educating them on proper hand washing, use of personal protective equipment, social distancing and management of social activities.

She credited Wilton Health Director Barry Bogle for his communication with the leadership of all the congregate sites. “Some need more attention and help and some less so,” Bradley said.

The agency’s office on Danbury Road is still open, but by appointment only, and staff has been working in the office or at home on a rotating basis.

Spike in services

Always busy, the agency has seen a real spike in the services needed over the past two months. To accommodate varying needs, the agency instituted its Ask A Nurse service, expanded its telehealth offerings, and more recently, upped its home care services.

The very popular Ask a Nurse is a new hotline people may call with their healthcare questions. They may call 203-834-6341, ext. 500, or email to health@visitingnurse.net and a nurse will respond as soon as possible. With so many people staying at home, Bradley said they feel more comfortable reaching out in this way. The hotline is staffed by registered nurses — a combination of the agency’s school nurses and staff nurses — 12 hours a day, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.

The telehealth program has proved to be the agency’s greatest opportunity for innovation. Although the service has been around for 15 years, it’s been more in demand as people are cautious about venturing out or allowing anyone — even a nurse — into their homes.

Through the success of its COVID-19 Relief Fund, the agency has been better able to serve people who either don’t have or lost their health insurance when they lost their job. It has purchased tablet devices patients may keep in their home to have real-time assessments and interactive contact with nurses. These are patients who have any number of health needs including cancer, heart conditions, diabetes, and wound care.

Home care

The last three weeks, however, have seen a resurgence of the need for home care by COVID-19 patients who have been released from the hospital.

“In many cases, they were on mechanical ventilation and in critical care. They are coming home on oxygen or injectable medications they will need in the short term,” Bradley explained. “Each of these patients is so thrilled they have been able to come home and they are enthusiastic in working on their recovery.”

Still, these patients have many major concerns.

“These are people of all ages,” Bradley said. “The youngest are in their 30s up through their 80s. All of them are saying that at first, in the hospital, they were frightened.” Those who required mechanical ventilation don’t remember much, which she said is a benefit.

“Many, if not every one, has been essentially bed-bound for a couple of weeks at a minimum at the hospital while combating a very serious illness,” she said. As a result, they are very weak.

“Many are on oxygen, which they were not on prior to COVID-19,” she said, “and there is a worry on their part of ‘how long will I be on oxygen, will I ever get off it, how long will it take me to recover, will I infect family members, will I be a burden to my family?’”

The agency, however, is able to help in many ways with their physical rehabilitation, and respiratory recovery.

“We have many tools in the home that help us do these things that maybe a few years back were only available in hospitals,” Bradley said. “What is wonderful is maybe a patient can come home a few days earlier with help from the agency and go on with their recovery at home.”

Unprecedented

Bradley wanted to emphasize “what we are going through now is unprecedented. It is not at all to be unexpected to be sad or worried or not feeling well.”

She said there is great value to communicating on a video chat.

“We have licensed social workers doing group chats or one-on-one on the phone or by video. I want to make sure people not feel they just have to tough it out or go it alone. Please reach out and seek help.”

The agency is also conducting extra outreach to bereaved families.

“Just the enormity of the situation between the pandemic, the loss of loved one and possibly the economic impact — all these aspects we want to address,” she said.

Information on these services is available on the agency website at visitingnurse.net.

editor@wiltonbulletin.com.