Members of the Maine National Guard task force med team recently spent time at Maine Veterans’ Homes – Augusta fit testing staff for N95 masks in an effort to keep healthcare workers safe in case of an outbreak of COVID-19.

“What really filled my heart with joy was seeing our Guard members serving our veterans,” said Cathy McKay, Infection Preventionist and Staff Development Coordinator at MVH Augusta, according to a news release from Maine Veterans’ Homes – Augusta.

When McKay looks at the photos of the National Guard team fit testing the home staff, it brings tears to her eyes.

“Our staff are so precious and it means so much that our National Guard was here,” she said, adding that the fit testing kits and masks for 51 staff members were provided at no cost to the nonprofit organization.

EVER CHANGING GUIDELINES
When it comes to long-term care policies and procedures, all six Maine Veterans’ Homes locations and nursing facilities throughout the United States follow guidelines from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Centers for Medicaid & Medicare Services. In the case of COVID-19, guidelines include when and how visits from families are allowed, how families members of residents are notified of a potential case of COVID-19 and the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), among other regulations. This guidance, McKay said, can change frequently.

“As we continue to refine cohorting procedures and observation areas, we need to assure that essential staff in those key areas are all trained and fitted for N95 masks,” McKay said, according to the release. “It’s a tremendous task,” she added, not only because of the availability of staff on various shifts but because of the arduous testing process.

A handful of MVH staff, including McKay, are authorized to fit test employees at the home and since March have conducted tests as needed. The first step in the process is that staff have to fill out a questionnaire to determine if they are medically able to wear an N95 mask. Once cleared by the Home’s medical director, their test is scheduled.

LIMITED SUPPLIES
Next, staff don an N95 respirator mask under a hood that goes over their heads. A saccharin solution is pumped into the hood in bursts and staff are asked to identify at which burst they can taste the sweet solution. Once they reach that threshold, they’re fit for a mask and they put the hood back to perform a series of movements, including touching their toes and any other movement they might perform while on the job. The entire time, the person being tested is trying to detect the sweet taste of the solution. McKay said test subjects also read what’s called the “Rainbow passage,” which is designed to move every muscle in the face when read:

“WHEN THE SUNLIGHT STRIKES RAINDROPS IN THE AIR, THEY ACT LIKE A PRISM AND FORM A RAINBOW. THE RAINBOW IS A DIVISION OF WHITE LIGHT INTO MANY BEAUTIFUL COLORS. THESE TAKE THE SHAPE OF A LONG ARCH, WITH ITS PATH HIGH ABOVE, AND ITS TWO ENDS APPARENTLY BEYOND THE HORIZON. THERE IS, ACCORDING TO LEGEND, A BOILING POT OF GOLD AT ONE END. PEOPLE LOOK, BUT NO ONE EVER FINDS IT. WHEN A MAN LOOKS FOR SOMETHING BEYOND HIS REACH, HIS FRIENDS SAY HE IS LOOKING FOR THE POT OF GOLD AT THE END OF THE RAINBOW.”

Before the Maine National Guard’s visit and at the stage when the home was conducting its own fit testing, McKay discovered that toilet paper and cleaning solution weren’t the only items that were difficult to find — saccharin wasn’t readily available because of the increased fit testing happening throughout the U.S. After consulting with area health care facilities, she found that pharmacies can compound the solution. Fortunately, MVH has its own pharmacy and staff were happy to compound the material for the tests.

“Fit testing also includes education about how to store masks, donning and doffing (taking off) them and documentation of when each mask is used and how many times,” McKay said.

NATIONAL GUARD RESPONDS
Sgt. First Class Cummings of the Maine National Guard said the task force med team, made up of four members, has fit-tested about 1,500 health care workers since May. The guard has responded to facilities that reached out to the Maine CDC, indicating a need for assistance with fit testing, and are close to fulfilling those requests now.

“As a veteran, it’s nice to know we’re helping out fellow Veterans by offering this testing to the healthcare staff who care for them,” he said. “It’s a great time to be a member of our guard right now – it’s all about helping our communities.”

Maine Veterans’ Homes is a nonprofit organization whose mission, “caring for those who served,” is at the forefront of all that we do. We operate six homes throughout the state where we care for Veterans, their spouses and Gold Star parents. We opened our first home in Augusta and 1983 and went on to open locations in Bangor, Caribou, Machias, Scarborough and South Paris. We feel strongly that our purpose and work in providing care to Maine Veterans and family members is a special privilege and calling.

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