Nursing homes and other centers housing older Americans are turning to technology to address the spread of COVID-19.
While almost all facets of society have had to change in light of the coronavirus pandemic, few industries have faced the deadly wrath of the virus quite like elder care facilities.
Of the more than one million people living in about 15,500 nursing homes across the country, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reported over 37,000 deaths since the COVID-19 pandemic began. The Associated Press estimates that the death toll for both nursing homes and long-term care facilities is even higher at nearly 60,000.
While elder care facilities in states like New York and New Jersey are now looking for ways to slowly reopen centers to families and visitors, ones in South Carolina, Florida, and Arizona are facing the peak of the COVID-19 wave. In both instances, nursing homes have turned to contact tracing apps and wearable technology, sometimes with Bluetooth, to help staff members track coronavirus infections and keep residents safe.
On Wednesday, the White House announced a $5 billion package designated specifically to help nursing homes with their COVID-19 response. CMS Administrator Seema Verma said in a statement that as "caseloads increase in areas around the country, it has never been more important that nursing homes have what they need to maintain a sturdy defense against the virus."
SEE: Return to work: What the new normal will look like post-pandemic (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
Companies like CarePredict have spent months working with senior living communities to deploy suites of technology that let staff members know who to quarantine, what to clean and how to keep others safe. The company's chief business officer Gerald Wilmink said its technology was key to helping facilities reopen for families desperate to see loved ones.
"Chronic diseases or aging in general have made it very difficult for staff members to contain, mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and stop the chain of transmission. Technology has been really valuable for nursing homes and for senior living communities and many of our customers are using it to mitigate the spread both now and also as we move forward to reopening these communities because for the past two months, they've been locked down and the seniors have basically had no outside visitation of family members," Wilmink said.
"They're becoming incredibly isolated and due to that social deprivation, undergoing a lot of depression and stress. These tools will allow these communities to open up safely and make sure that individuals that are infected are identified quickly and contained so the chain of transmission is stopped."
The company has worked with nursing homes on a variety of tools including the CarePredict PinPoint Toolset, which gives staff members access to a contact tracing platform as well as location tracing, path tracing, and room traffic tools.
Apps and tools
Other companies like Viri and Quuppa are providing apps and tools that revolve around the same task—figuring out who has the virus and how staff can contain it. Once a resident has tested positive for COVID-19, the nursing home has to move as fast as possible to isolate the person, track down anyone who they came in contact with, and scrub clean any areas the resident may have lingered.
This also goes for staff members, who have routinely become nexus cases for the virus as it spreads in the surrounding community.
"When you deploy contact tracing technology within your own facilities, whether you are an enterprise, healthcare facility, hospital, or an airport; you are taking measures to keep your employees safe," explained Viri founder Sumit Ahuja.
The company has created an app that works as a contact tracing network, allowing cross-organization contact tracing without the need for any exchange of health data or any personal identifying information. Ahuja is already working with multiple healthcare facilities and hospitals.
"When one employee tests positive, the technology helps notify every other employee that he/she may have crossed paths with to monitor for symptoms and to get tested, instantly isolating and preventing an outbreak in your organization."
Fabio Belloni, co-founder of Real-Time Locating System provider Quuppa, said the company is working with partners in Kentucky, California, and dozens of cities across the country to deploy its technology in nursing homes.
Tracking a patient
Many of the systems were already in the works before the coronavirus pandemic hit because administrators wanted to use the product for patients with Alzheimer's who may get lost. The tool also provides other diagnostic information so some nursing homes wanted to track a patient's progress over time through a variety of health indicators.
But once COVID-19 hit, nursing homes used Quuppa's technology to deal with the easily spreadable virus.
"What our tech does is to track the location of objects, so if it is worn in a wristband we can monitor the location of the person in a facility. The device also has some sensor data we can follow," Belloni said.
"It is a combination of location tech and IoT. Social distancing and contact tracing, both start with location. So knowing who is where, how far apart two individuals were, or which individual has gotten in contact with whom and where is important now more than ever."
Belloni also noted that some states have put regulations in place requiring patients to be kept a certain distance away or that facilities be kept at a certain density based on available space.
Wilmink of CarePredict said the company offers a wearable device worn on the dominant arm of the residents or staff members of the nursing home or assisted living facility.
The CarePredict wearables have beacons that are wirelessly connected to hardware installed throughout the community. Through the system staff can get information on room location.
"Say a staff member takes a test and is infected with COVID-19. The community staff goes into the CarePredict software, selects the staff member and runs it back two weeks to look at all of the contact the person made when they were infected or infectious," Wilmink said.
"All of that is instantaneous, so within seconds you have a report that is valuable because many elderly residents have memory impairment. Their ability to recall where they had been and who they spent time with over the past 14 days is difficult, so there would be a lot of contact that would normally be missed. In addition, the value is we can identify those contacts that may be asymptomatic."
Wilmink added that CarePredict has been rolling out the PinPoint Toolset since March and has customers across Japan as well as in 20 different branded communities throughout the United States.
Some facilities are using it as a way to keep family members updated on the state of nursing homes and of specific residents. In light of the devastating effect the virus has had on elder care facilities, Wilmink said a number of families want more information about how their loved one is fairing considering visitation is still largely disallowed.
The wearable wristband also has heart rate and pulse rate trackers as well as a two-way voice communication tool.
"They typically do testing at nursing homes now so you only get bits of info and family members are left nervous and waiting for the next update," Wilmink said.
"This allows them to tell the family that 'Yes there is a case, but your loved one has not been in contact with that particular person and we're using these tools to ensure that we're safely quarantining the right individuals to do the right testing.'"
- The latest cancellations: How the coronavirus is disrupting tech conferences worldwide (TechRepublic)
- Return to work: What the new normal will look like post-pandemic (free PDF) (TechRepublic)
- Coronavirus domain names are the latest hacker trick (TechRepublic)
- Pandemic response policy (TechRepublic Premium)
- As coronavirus spreads, here's what's been canceled or closed (CBS News)
- Coronavirus: Effective strategies and tools for remote work during a pandemic (ZDNet)
- How to track the coronavirus: Dashboard delivers real-time view of the deadly virus (ZDNet)
- Coronavirus and COVID-19: All your questions answered (CNET)
- Coronavirus: More must-read coverage (TechRepublic on Flipboard)