WATERTOWN — When the COVID-19 pandemic arrived in the north country, a resource line that was quickly setup at Samaritan Medical Center also became a lifeline — something to grasp for community members swimming in a sea of pandemic fear and confusion.

“This was new for us,” said registered nurse Heather M. Clement, SMC’s patient safety officer. “We never had a resource line. When we got together to discuss it, we really wanted to have a way for community members to have a single place to call and get information related to COVID.”

Ms. Clement began her job as patient safety director in 2019. The Connecticut native and graduate of Excelsior College in Albany has been at SMC since 2006 as an RN and other roles.

“We never had something like this happen,” Ms. Clement said. “I don’t think our country has been through anything like this in a number of years. COVID was definitely a top priority for us in terms of patient safety.”

The resource line became a place where people can call to get answers about coronavirus and later, a place where people could arrange for testing to see if they were infected. In May 2020, those who worked the resource line did a reverse at times and began calling patients who recovered from COVID-19 and encouraging them to donate plasma to help those with the virus.

Ms. Clement said that when the resource line was created last spring, volunteers to staff it were sought.

“We asked the RN staff,” she said. “We had about 70 volunteers throughout the organization. They volunteered for four-hour blocks of time.”

Ms. Clement and retired medical professionals also staffed the line.

The resource line became a way for those concerned they were infected with the coronavirus to call and share symptoms with medical professionals. It was the first line of defense for many residents, who if not for the resource line, could have stressed resources of emergency rooms and primary care offices through in-person visits.

“Our RNs would ask specific questions depending on their exposure, their travel and symptoms,” Ms. Clement said. “That would determine if they needed to be tested. Some of them, unfortunately, did need emergency care. We would tell them exactly where to go and alert our emergency department so our staff was ready to take care of them as soon as they came in.”

In many cases, resource line workers fielded several calls from the same individuals.

“The same people would call almost every week,” Ms. Clement said. “Sometimes they just needed to be reassured. We had elderly patients right in the beginning — it’s a little bit difficult to think about now because we’re one year in — but we used to have our elderly patients call and say, ‘My kids want to come over but they’re standing at the driveway. Is that OK? Can they leave stuff?’”

Other callers had anxiety or apparent mental health issues.

“As we went, we got better at it — our process improvement rate,” Ms. Clement said.

Callers with anxiety issues were referred to correct places and/or given numbers to call. Resource line workers also shared resources available to senior citizens who didn’t have access to transportation.

“We would help them get in contact with those agencies,” Ms. Clement said.

Some people who called, Ms. Clement said, just wanted to give an update on themselves, such as sharing details on a new exercise plan that included walks in their basement.

“It was very fulfilling and everybody who participated felt the same way,” she said. “It seemed like it was a very task-oriented thing to ask the same questions, because we wanted to make sure everybody was getting the same standardized care. But they would come out feeling pretty fulfilled. It’s more of a conversation.”

SMC also updated its website to provide more information on the local pandemic. But Samaritan also reminds the community that its COVID-19 resource line can still be reached at 315-755-3100 and is staffed 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. weekdays. As of early March, four RNs were staffing the line.

“We’ve incorporated this into our normal operational functions,” Ms. Clement said. “We have a dedicated staff that does this now. It’s part of what they do every day. We get reports every day. We review any type of different phone calls and trends. We have dedicated this as to who we are and what we do now.”

And the line may continue when the COVID crisis dissipates.

“Of course, we’re looking forward to the day when COVID is long past, but we are looking to maybe keep the resource line for the community. We can tailor that to whatever needs of the community are at that time.”

In late December, Ms. Clement was among those who provided the first vaccinations in Jefferson County when SMC received 335 initial doses. She arrived at the hospital at 5:30 a.m. for a day of vaccinations and observations.

“I was excited to be a part of history,” she said.

———

The following are COVID-19-related statistics for 2020 relating to Samaritan Health.

— Number of long-term care staff COVID-19 testing completed:

Samaritan Summit Village: 8,472

Samaritan Keep Home: 12,566

— Number of long-term care resident COVID-19 testing completed:

SSV: 2,825

SKH: 2,292

— Number of monoclonal antibody infusions given to COVID positive long term care residents:

SSV: 24

SKH: 3

The infusions are a treatment to help residents recover quickly and out of the hospital.

— Percentage of resident COVID-19 vaccinations received:

SSV skilled nursing: 73%

SSV assisted living: 85%

Keep Home 87%

— In 2020, 14,415 patients were tested at Samaritan’s drive-up COVID-19 testing site.

— In 2020, the Samaritan Resource Line answered more than 10,000 calls from community members and patients with COVID-19 symptoms, questions and concerns.

— Overall in 2020, Samaritan provided more than 16,000 telehealth provider visits, compared to 515 in 2019 — a direct result of the pandemic.

— In 2020, Samaritan Medical Center cared for 157 COVID patients admitted 172 times.

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