Eight months into this pandemic, we’re all tired of sacrifices and staying apart. Heather Schimmers, chief nursing officer for Ascension Wisconsin, gets it. At the same time, as we come upon the holidays and a time in which we want to gather more than ever, she says it’s vital for people to make tough decisions now so we can see a brighter future sooner.
Schimmers talked with Insight about the impact COVID-19 has had on her staff and organization. As the recently named chair-elect of the Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce, she’s also keenly aware of how the virus affects businesses. With a vaccine on the horizon, there’s reason for hope, Schimmers says, but for now, we need to remain steadfast in stopping the spread.
Talk about where we are now and what we as a community need to do to ensure we don’t create a worse situation throughout and after the holidays.
Heather Schimmers: We’re coming up on some crucial times in the next couple of months where people are prone to gather and celebrate with their families. Unfortunately, we all know what we need to do to stay safe. We have tried to do everything in our power to make sure that we could perhaps celebrate the holiday season this year, but we just are not in a place in our community at this point where gathering with large groups or being in close quarters indoors, especially in our climate, is safe.
I say it all the time, but it’s really wear your mask, maintain your social distance. This disease is not picky on who it’s going to choose to infect, and you don’t know who has it. We’ve got a lot of people roaming around this community that are carrying the virus that are asymptomatic and are able to spread it very easily. It’s hard for me and it’s frustrating for me when we try to compare COVID to other viruses, because it’s not the same. If you’ve been tested, if you have concern that perhaps you should be tested, that should be your first trigger to buckle down, stay home, get tested and then start your quarantine until you get your results back.
How has the virus, and particularly the surge, affected your staff members and organization? We spent a significant amount of our time really preparing and building up the energy and plans for surge management and all the needs of the communities that we serve in. Really, our No. 1 focus has always been around the safety of our communities and making sure that we have the ability to treat and serve the people that need our services and our health care facilities. We have surge plans in place around equipment. That has all gone so well.
We were preparing for a sprint, and we are in a marathon. People are tired. It’s become more than just a supply resource issue. At this point, this is a human capital issue. It’s so much more than bed capacity. This is about our associates. This is about our clinical resources staff. Their families are getting sick. They are getting sick because we’ve got such high community prevalence of the virus. If you’d ask me what’s keeping me up at night, it’s that the human capital resource that we need to combat this disease is being strained. It’s my job, it’s your job, it’s the community’s job to take that very seriously and do our part to help with that.
You were recently named chair-elect for the Fox Cities Chamber. How is the virus affecting employers and the economy? When I think of the smallest of the small businesses all the way up to some very large corporations, there is not one industry that has not been impacted in one way or another by COVID. I’m so impressed with the direction the chamber is heading and the commitment that the chamber has made to this community. Becky Bartoszek, the president of the chamber, is never shy about reaching out to her health care affiliates that serve on the board. ThedaCare is represented, Ascension is represented, and we all work together on multiple community health issues and opportunities.
When you think about these business owners, they’re tired of this too. The sooner we get the spread under control, the sooner we can get back to normal. I can see it coming back, but we just all have this social responsibility to do what we know is best. I do think that is to really just buckle down and follow the rules and make this about the health of the community and show people what the Fox Valley can do. I think it’s the most beautiful community, and the sooner we can stand together to tackle this virus, the sooner we’re going to be able to be back together.
How will what we’re going through now influence the future of care? First, people should not put off their care because of COVID. I have great confidence that a vaccine will be coming and will help us get this under control, but it’s not going to disappear, so we need to be comfortable with the fact that it’s here and we need to learn to manage it. If you need care, don’t put that off.
When you think about the future of health care, think about the shift of volume in our telemedicine program. With my organization, we had about 110,000 virtual visits (from March 1 to June 1). That was unlike anything we’ve ever seen. There’s a really cool opportunity in our mental health crisis to receive a broader scope of care by some virtual visits versus always having an in-person visit. That’s a real shining star through all of this.
I have also seen an interest from what I think is going to be one of the most socially responsible young populations coming up as they age. Many people have realized, that (health care may be something they) really want to do. I have seen an interest in young individuals asking all the right questions and wanting to join in health care, which I think is fantastic and really gives me some hope for our future.
I also just want to make sure that everyone knows how proud I am of our health care providers in this community. Not only that, our community has taken such beautiful care of these people, be it drop-off of food or contributions to our associate hardship fund. That’s how I know that I live and choose to work out of a community of really good people that know how to do the right thing.