How AtlantiCare is helping to ensure South Jersey is prepared for all things COVID

Hospital system eager to reach out to community, offer training on issues facing businesses, schools and other organizations

It’s well known up and down the state: South Jersey often views itself as its own entity. Part of New Jersey? Absolutely. But the region, perhaps more than other area in the state, always makes sure it comes together to take care of itself.

That’s why it is no surprise that AtlantiCare has been active with businesses, schools and organizations — not just educating them on COVID-19, but giving training sessions on how to prepare for all things COVID, including a second surge and the return to the office.

The health system has produced a 10-page guide, which is it sharing digitally with any organizations that are in need.

Debra Fox, vice president, strategic planning and hospitalist medicine, at AtlantiCare, said it’s all about a commitment to the community. She said the guide came about after community members began reaching out to the health system for guidance.

Starting in January, the organization began getting calls from the community leaders, businesses, nonprofits, chambers of commerce and others with requests for information, clarification about guidelines, assistance and other needs related to how to manage a myriad of issues tied to COVID.

As AtlantiCare officials updated organizations — often daily — the system tracked common questions, concerns and issues, and used this and other feedback from the community to develop the guide.

“We really didn’t think in advance what they would need from us, but, as we began to listen to them and speak with them, we began to get a better sense of what their needs were,” Fox said. “And, as a result of that, we put together the guide.”

Fox said AtlantiCare is eager and willing to expand the support is has already provided to large and small organizations on a number of issues, including:

  • Educating owners, administrators and staff about safety measures;
  • Managing COVID exposures;
  • Assisting in in remaining open/reopening;
  • Helping to ensure staff are wearing appropriate personal protective equipment that fits each individual;
  • Informing about/interpretation of current national and state health care, legal and other guidelines;
  • Providing testing information and on-site clinical support, including the need for nurses and contact tracers;
  • Helping with employee assistance programs.

Of course, at its core, AtlantiCare is a health care facility — one Fox said is determined to be a leader in the community and a partner with our facilities.

Lori Herndon. (File photo)

“Early in this pandemic, our CEO, Lori Herndon, reached out to the other local hospitals to say that we shouldn’t be standing alone and working on this as independent organizations, and that we should be working together,” Fox said.

AtlantiCare and Herndon began having regular meetings with other area hospitals to share best practices and assistance as needed. The group also felt it was important to let the community understand how they were working together. This was not a competitive moment.

“Because we’re a little more isolated from the rest of the state, a lot of the employees have maybe worked in those other places,” Fox said. “Because we share those sorts of things, it was more natural for us to just begin to work together. And there were joint messages and communications, made through the local newspaper, assuring the community that we were working together as a health care industry and not independent hospitals, so that people could expect the same things (from all the facilities).”

Fox said AtlantiCare takes pride in its connection to the community — whether it be the casino industry, an education system, a nonprofit or local health offices.

Most of the inquires, she said, revolve around education, access to testing and advice regarding potential exposures to COVID-19, she said. Helping out — either through the guidance book, a webinar or a meeting — was a natural for the health system.

“We do have the ability to do that as a health care system, because we educate all the time,” Fox said. “So, we’ve got a lot of internal talent that’s able to educate all different levels.

“We do that as part of the normal course of caring for people in our hospitals, we have to often educate people on how to care for themselves after a hospital visit. So, those sorts of skill sets and talents, we already have within our organization.”

The key, Fox said, is making sure each effort is specific to the group requesting help.

“We really work hard to customize that to the particular business that is asking us,” she said. “We may have put together a training protocol for one of the casino properties. If a local school reached out to us and asked for the same thing, there are some things that will be similar, but then there will be other things that are different.

“So, we really have tried to customize what should be delivered to the people that are asking.”

Susan Davenport, executive vice president and chief of staff at Stockton University, said AtlantiCare has been a trusted asset.

“AtlantiCare has been a trusted partner for us every step of the way as we work to keep the Stockton community safe,” she said. “Representatives serve on our Public Health Advisory team and have provided guidance on many aspects of our restart plan, including our daily health pledge protocols, testing and contact tracing.

“They have hosted ‘town hall’ Zoom sessions for our university community and the ongoing guidance they have provided has been invaluable. We will continue to work together as coronavirus protocols and recommendations evolve.”

Fox said AtlantiCare’s relationship with the county health department has been critical — and part of the partnerships AtlantiCare is trying to foster in the community.

“We share data and information,” she said. “And, we believe that if there’s an opportunity for more connection with another community partner that we have — but they have an opportunity to connect more tightly with the county — we facilitate that, too.

“Those relationships have been really important and have made our ability to serve the community much more effective.”