Rebuilding America: Our series dives into our community's efforts to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic.

As Kansas reopens and America rebuilds, one thing is certain: The COVID-19 pandemic will leave a lasting change in health care.


The extent of that change, however, is unclear.


"The reality is that this particular virus will be something we will be dealing with for the foreseeable future," said Matt Schmidt, CEO of Health Ministries Clinic. "Along with other health care providers, we are all working to make sure that our environment is as safe as possible for both patients and staff."


Those changes include increased screening of patients and visitors at health care facilities.


And those changes, according to Val Gleason, president and CEO of Newton Medical Center, include a public perception problem.


"Although our community views the hospital in a positive light, they are now afraid of us and scared to come to us for care." Gleason said. "I want to assure the public that doctors’ offices and the hospital are safe and sanitary. We know how to care for people we suspect of having COVID and how to protect others from coming into contact with them."


At Newton Medical Center, the focus has been on safety and preparing for cases of COVID-19. That includes increased use of telemedicine, which is something health care facilities will likely carry into the future.


"I’ve been pleased at the rapid adoption of telemedicine," Gleason said. "Before COVID-10, hospitals were not able to fully embrace telemedicine due to regulatory and reimbursement constraints. Those prohibitions have been lifted during the COVID-19 pandemic, and this sensible technology is very likely here to stay. "


Gleason said she and Newton Medical Center have known for some time that telemedicine held "great promise." During weeks of stay-at-home orders, providers began making a commitment to the use of telehealth technology — locally, Axtell Clinic and Prairie View, a mental health clinic, launched telehealth initiatives.


"When COVID-19 struck and regulators permitted doctors’ offices to do virtual office visits, the pent-up demand for telemedicine was readily evident," Gleason said. "COVID has quickly demonstrated telemedicine makes our entire health care system more efficient and affordable. It is even more sensible for patients in rural areas, patients who see several specialists, or patients with chronic conditions who require frequent physician interactions. Even for persons who have minor acute illnesses, telemedicine could provide rapid diagnosis, quicker access to prescriptions, ability to stay on the job or in school, and better use of the community’s EMS workforce and emergency rooms."


In the case of nursing homes, there are residents to keep safe as well. That has led to long-term care facilities not allowing visitors of any kind. It is unclear when that policy may change.


"An adjustment we have made during the pandemic is how residents experience social connection," said Morgan Redding, director of communications for Bluestem Communties. "Though visitors are not allowed in our buildings at this time, many families have done creative things to stay in touch and our staff have made these connections possible. Video chats with families, window visits and homemade posters/signs are just a few of the ways family and friends continue to connect with their loved ones."


That will continue to be the norm. Redding said that while Bluestem is making plans to reopen campuses, it is unknown when that will happen — only that it will be "a later date than most organizations."


And there is more — the virus has affected how long term care facilities provide services on a daily basis.


Facilities are evaluating literally every part of their business, from sanitation to meal service to resident activities.


"We will be looking at how we can ensure our dining room and gathering spaces are set up for social distancing during meal service and planned events," said Mark Kessinger, director of Kansas Christian Home. "We are evaluating what types of group programming can be offered and what will best suit our residents’ needs. We’ll also be evaluating our personal protective equipment (PPE) use and needs as we start allowing visitors into the building, as well as how we will continue to monitor the health of our residents, staff and visitors.


"What has inspired us during this crisis is the way our employees have gone above and beyond in their tireless efforts to keep residents safe and meet their needs. We so appreciate the creativity of our life enrichment team members in keeping our residents engaged and active and the way our independent living residents have created their own systems for keeping in touch with each other and residents in higher levels of care. We really are in this together, even though we are physically distancing."