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Boise State Public Radio News is here to keep you current on the news surrounding COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. If you have specific questions about the virus in Idaho and the state's response to it, please submit them to us and we'll do our best to report the information you need.

As COVID Surges Again, Idaho In Urgent Need Of 'Heroes' For Elder Care

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Without exception, hardest hit by the pandemic have been the elderly. To date, approximately 98% of Idaho's COVID-19-related fatalities have been men and women over the age of 70.  And the challenge of caring for those residing in nursing and assisted living facilities has never been greater. That's why the Idaho Health Care Association has launched a statewide effort to recruit skilled workers, as well as "anyone with a strong back and a soft heart."

IHCA Executive Director Robert Vande Merwe visits with Morning Edition host George Prentice to talk about Idaho's urgent need for caregivers, safety protocols inside the facilities and how caring for the informed "speaks to the heart."

“There's fear; there's trepidation; but there's also heroic caring going on. And some of the bravest workers in our society are going to work every day.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: It's Morning Edition on Boise State Public Radio News. Good morning. I'm George Prentice. The pandemic has affected so much damage to so many elements of our lives. Without exception, hardest hit have been those who live and work in assisted living facilities. Indeed, residents have become ill. Nurse's aides and other employees have also been hit hard by the virus. Some are forced to quarantine due to exposure. Some have left the profession altogether. Joining us this morning to talk a bit about that is Robert Vande Merwe. He is the executive director of the Idaho Health Care Association. Good morning.

ROBERT VANDE MERWE: Good morning to you.

PRENTICE: Up front, can you give us a sense of your industry - the state of the assisted living industry in Idaho? Most of us are on the outside looking in. What's it like on the inside?

VANDE MERWE: We represent nursing facilities as well as assisted living facilities, but across the industry, that's where 40 percent of the deaths of COVID have taken place across the state. So, there's fear; there's trepidation; but there's also heroic caring going on. And some of the bravest workers in our society are going to work every day, caring for those who need us at their most time of need in their lives.

PRENTICE: The Idaho Health Care Association has launched a campaign. I want to make sure I have this right. It's a particular website, Idaho.CarefortheAging.org. Tell me about this campaign.

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Robert Vande Merwe, IHCA Executive Director

VANDE MERWE: You know, with the baby boomers turning 65 and 70, and needing more care, and 85-plus being the fastest growing segment of our society, we already needed a lot of workers. We already didn't have enough workers in the senior care part of our economy. And then COVID happened. And we need even more employees because we're seeing every patient individually in the room. We're bringing activities to every patient individually in the room, and meals and so forth. So, it's taking more employees. We already started with less and we've had employees become ill, we've had employees out of fear, quit and resign. And we just need even more employees now. We need nurses, and we can train folks who aren't certified nursing assistants. And it takes brave souls to come in and care for those who are in the center of our pandemic.

PRENTICE: And you're also looking for… and I'm reading this from your website, “Anyone with a strong back and a soft heart.’ What kind of work are you talking about there?

VANDE MERWE: You know, we need housekeepers. We need people to do laundry. We need people to help make meals in some facilities. The nurses are helping to cook meals because we don't have enough kitchen workers. So, anyone with an ability to do hard manual labor, but can do it in a way that is sensitive and caring. Those are the exact folks that we need. And we know that there are heroes all throughout our society.

And I've been so warmed. We've had over 100 heroes contact us through our website, saying “I'm ready to step up. I would love to help those in most in need at this time.”

PRENTICE: And for those who may be listening right now, and may be interested, but have pause because of what they've heard about safety protocols... to them, you would say what?

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VANDE MERWE: You know, early on, in March, April, May, we didn't have enough PPE - Personal Protective Equipment. And that was terrifying. It was a difficult time. Testing resources weren't enough. But I'm very pleased to be able to say that we do have enough testing resources now, thanks to state and federal help. We do have enough Personal Protective Equipment. So, people can come. And as long as they follow the facility's safety protocols, they will be safe. There's still a risk going to the supermarket. There's a risk coming to our facilities. But if they will follow the safety protocols, staff are showing that they can be very safe. It's the residents that are catching it from staff 10 times more than a staff acquiring this virus from residents.

PRENTICE: I have to assume these are good jobs.

VANDE MERWE: Well, yes. However, Medicaid is the primary payer source for most of senior care. And when Medicaid is your primary payer source, that means resources are short. And so, some of the entry level jobs, I wouldn't say are high paid, but in heart and in satisfaction and in, right now, overtime for sure, there's an opportunity to earn a good wage. But if you want to make a difference during the pandemic, this is a place where you can make a difference, for sure.

PRENTICE: Put a face and a voice to some of these applicants. I have to assume that they include folks in between jobs or without jobs, or young adults who are looking for something of consequence. I'm assuming that they would be prime candidates.

VANDE MERWE: Yes, I've seen it all. I've seen young people straight out of high school didn't feel they had a direction in their lives. And they reached out and said, Oh, you'll help me get a CNR.” This might be a good start. And a facility can help them get the right kind of nursing experience to be qualified to get into nursing school. We've had responses from retired nurses saying, “You know, I'm really retired, but at a time of need, it speaks to my heart and I will come and work in your facility”  It's been amazing. We've had retired military, retired EMT, firefighters and single moms and stay-at-home moms. We've had over 100 people reach out so far and say, “We understand there's a need. I would love to help.” It's been so heartwarming, but we need many, many, many more.

PRENTICE: And the website again is Idaho.CarefortheAging.org. And he is Robert Vande Merwe. He's the executive director of the Idaho Health Care Association. We can't thank you and your colleagues enough for the work that you do. And thanks for giving us a few minutes this morning.

VANDE MERWE: Of course, thank you so much, I appreciate you.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

Copyright 2020 Boise State Public Radio

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