Tales from Wilton’s COVID-19 Frontline: Sharon Bradley, Visiting Nurse & Hospice President/CEO

On Tuesday afternoon, GMW virtually “sat down” with Sharon M. Bradley RN, MSN, DNP, the President and CEO of Visiting Nurse & Hospice of Fairfield County. Since the COVID-19 crisis began, the non-profit has instituted many measures to protect the community, including creating the “Ask A Nurse” Community Hotline and increasing both its telehealth and in-person wellness visits, sometimes daily. Bradley fills us in on what Visiting Nurse & Hospice is doing to help the community stay safe, Wilton’s current needs, her advice for social distancing, and how the community can help.

GOOD Morning Wilton:  Before we start, can you explain what your role as Visiting Nurse & Hospice of Fairfield County president/CEO?

Sharon Bradley:  I am a registered nurse by background, I have worked with the organization in a couple of different capacities for over 25 years. As the President and CEO I have overall responsibility for all activities, programs, services within the agency, the clinical programs of our home health, our hospice. Also, we’re the public health nurses and we’re the school nurses in the town of Wilton.

In other settings I meet regularly with our referral sources. We are a preferred provider with Nuvance Health, which is Norwalk Hospital. We’re also the preferred provider for the [Yale] New Haven system, and we’re a member of the performance network for the Stamford Health system. So I represent the agency when we have occasion to work with those key referral sources.

I also educate the public in different forums…And I’m responsible for overseeing the financial well-being of the organization and work with the donor community and our development department because as a not-for-profit, we never turn anyone away who needs care. I work with our donor community and help them understand our needs, and how they might support our work.

GMW:  Visiting Nurse provides a whole range of services that help Wilton and the wider community stay healthy. How has COVID-19 changed the services you provide, including new services you’re offering, such as the Ask A Nurse Hotline.

Bradley:  One of the great things about home-care nursing…is it allows us as clinicians to bring a wonderful blend of innovation into the home as well as our clinical expertise, because each individual is unique, their family’s unique, each home environment is unique.

So, in this case of the pandemic public health emergency created by COVID-19, we’ve been asked to really draw on that combination of innovation and clinical expertise in new ways. Initially, some of our patients were a little bit hesitant to have us come into the home with all the recommendations, rightly so, for social distancing and for people to remain in their homes. So we drew upon one of our services that we’d been providing right along–home telehealth.

[Now], a couple things have happened:  one is patients have become more comfortable in having us come into the home, so we actually now are seeing more patients than we were, say, three or four weeks ago; we also are delivering many more telehealth visits, and due to the generosity of the community we’ve been able to purchase additional tablets and laptops to enable us to deliver more interactive audio/video telehealth visits to our patients. This is, interestingly, across almost all of our disciplines–not only our registered nurses providing telehealth visits, but also our physical therapists, occupational therapists, speech therapists, and social work counselors.

Visiting Nurse Carlos Alvarez answers calls on the Ask a Nurse hotline

Also, we did add some additional outreach services for our community, including ‘Ask a Nurse’. That’s a dedicated phone line and dedicated email address where individuals can reach out to our nurses and we’ll have a response or dialogue or whatever type of interaction an individual or family may wish.

The questions have been running the gamut, from questions specific to COVID-19 and isolation precautions, but also just general questions about medications:  Can I still go to my pharmacy? Do you know what pharmacies are open? We’ve seen it bring value to the public in ways that maybe they didn’t know where to reach out to get an answer to a general question or even a specific question, and it’s been great. We have someone available seven days a week, who responds to the calls mostly between 8 a.m.-8 p.m. It’s brought an additional level of comfort to members of the community to know we’re here in that way.

GMW:  As someone who works closely with Wilton’s Health Director, can you speak to the need in Wilton right now and the concerns the community is facing?

Bradley:  [Wilton Health director] Barry Bogle, First Selectwoman Lynn Vanderslice and Chief John Lynch have just been awesome in terms of their leadership in dealing with this extraordinarily unusual and novel situation of COVID-19.

The whole concept of pandemic and novel virus, what that means simply is that none of us has immunity to this virus and there is really nothing known about it–we’re all learning as we go. Our role, under Barry’s direction, has been for a lot of health assessments for Wilton residents, both on an individual and congregate basis.

Some of the congregate settings in Wilton we visit daily and help residents with health checks–checking individuals’ temperature, respiratory condition, oxygen level by non-invasive means–and can help identify any early symptoms that may be suggestive of COVID-19, and help them access appropriate and timely testing to avert a more serious situation.

Also, the overall community education we’ve been doing one-on-one with individuals in their homes and again through “Ask a Nurse”

We’ve been invited to participate, when it’s appropriate, on the Emergency Planning meetings in the town under the leadership of the Chief and the First Selectwoman. And as Wilton looks at possible future needs, whether it be other locations for care of individuals who can’t be cared for at home, that still is in conversation.

GMW:  I’m sure you’ve heard of protests nationwide, with people demanding that we reopen and relax restrictions. Based on community needs right now, how would you respond to those people?

Bradley:  My personal view mirrors that of national health advisors and our local and state officials because Connecticut–particularly Fairfield County–still has a high experience with COVID-19. I think we need to be very, very careful about moving away from the social distancing that people have been so responsibly following. I do think that’s been successful in slightly beginning to see some ease in hospitalization rates, but it still is a pandemic health emergency. I would urge us to continue to follow the recommendations of social distancing and isolation and wearing masks in public settings where you can’t distance, including grocery stores and now our workplaces. We still have a ways to go and we’d be wise to continue the recommendations regarding protection.

GMW:  Where are your nurses working and what needs they are seeing?

Bradley:  Our service area is from Greenwich to Fairfield, and up through Redding and Ridgefield and then all the communities in that geographic area. Our service in Wilton is the deepest and the widest, [as] the public health nurses and school nurses, as well as home care and hospice nurses in Wilton. That is really a unique and very valuable involvement in the town that we have only in Wilton.

Visiting Nurse Ellen Dobson with PPE at Visiting Nurse offices

We are actively seeing patients every day. We now are seeing, in the last couple of weeks, so wonderfully, patients being discharged successfully from our area hospitals who are now in the recovery phases of COVID-19. So Personal Protective Equipment is critical for our clinicians because those patients remain infectious. We’ve been very fortunate because of the support of the community, and also because of the relationship with the Health Department in Wilton, that we have been able to secure PPE for our staff. It’s not an exhaustive supply by any means, but we are in a much better place with personal protective equipment than we were even three to four weeks ago.

As the preferred providers for our hospital systems, we do have regular protected communications with the hospitals. So we are aware for any patient if a situation is anticipated to be infectious from any source, so that when we are planning our visit for the patient and family and call to make arrangements, we have some background information and can bring the appropriate equipment to the home so that caregivers can care properly for their loved one. That we are protected going in, and also importantly, that the patient has the proper protection for him or herself in their recovery so that they continue on a robust road to recovery.

GMW:  Tell us about your COVID-19 emergency response fund? How much have you raised and why is it important?

Bradley:  Being a not-for-profit and drawing on the innovation of home-care and coming up very quickly with the need to deliver our service in new ways, particularly with our telehealth services; also seeing that many of our patients, because of the economic effects of the pandemic, lost their employ, and at the same time lost their health insurance. Also, for the need for PPE. All of those things [were] really exceeding our existing funding capabilities, we sought support from our donors in the community, also some area foundations, including the New Canaan Community Foundation and the Fairfield County Community Foundation. We reached out to seek support, and we have been overwhelmed by the generosity. The Turnover Shop, which has always been a wonderful supporter of our work, really, amazingly, gave us a special gift in addition to their annual gift, the two foundations that I mentioned, and dozens of community supporters. And at this time we’ve have raised over $80,000, which has been immediately turned back to the care of people in recovery of the pandemic; providing care to those who have no insurance and no means to pay, having lost their job; purchasing some additional telehealth equipment to deliver additional telehealth visits; and then also very importantly, the Personal Protective Equipment that our clinical director has [sought] out from many different sources and [purchased] from reputable suppliers and brought here.

And then our volunteers and staff have been preparing preparedness kits for our staff and delivering those to the staff in the field or having it available here in our office to people to come by and pick up.

And our Board of Directors has also shown awesome leadership in supporting us both financially and with their expertise. Of course, we are a small business and we have seen some changes in our operations. Christine Chivily, who is in the leadership of Bankwell, is a member of our Board of Directors and she helped us navigate the Payroll Protection Program, one of the new programs that’s available for small businesses such as ours in response to the pandemic.

We’ve been very fortunate and the outpouring of support, it’s just been so unbelievable. And it has gone right back to enable us to deliver more care to those in need.

GMW:  So many people in Wilton are very motivated to help out right now, whether it’s making masks, face shields or donating. Why is it crucial that people support Visiting Nurse & Hospice and what’s the best way people can do that?

Bradley: There are many ways people can help us. The creation of masks would be wonderful, particularly for our office staff now that we have the requirement of masking, even in the non-clinical setting. We would welcome that so we can be sure to preserve the medical-grade PPE for our clinicians and families who most need it. We have certainly continued financial support needs for the same areas that I identified, support for telehealth equipment, support for our PPE and support for unfunded care.

If there are volunteers who are interested in helping us prepare PPE kits, we are doing that on a limited basis because we are trying to follow social distancing guidelines ourselves. Some of us in the office have been sharing and telecommuting. So we would do that on a limited and scheduled basis. But the idea of someone helping us with face shields and face masks would be most welcome, as well as the support for our patients in the ways that I described would be wonderful and enable us to bring additional care to those most in need in this really challenging time.

GMW:  Right now with this pandemic, it’s such a time of worry and grave concern for so many people. What advice would you give people who are feeling nervous or anxious about the virus?

Bradley:  I hear that and we feel that here as well. Know that you are not alone, the concerns that you’re feeling are very legitimate in an environment of uncertainty. Anxiety and worry is expected. Please consider talking with us on our Ask the Nurse line or sending in a note. We also have counselors available at no charge for individuals who wish to take consideration of that offering. We can do that via telephone, we can do it via FaceTime or Zoom. Do think about taking advantage of the Ask the Nurse [hotline] because that is what we’re here for. If you just want to call us and have a conversation, please do. We welcome that. That’s why we’re here and please know that you’re not alone.

And we will get through this together.