COVID-19: The Work Ahead

As we approach the six-month mark since the “Shelter in Place” order, you may be, like me, experiencing a diverse range of emotions on any given day, or any given hour. In March, many of us presumed we would be “over” this pandemic by now. With eyes wide open, we have come to recognize that “over” and “past” are probably not the right words to capture our understanding of COVID-19. Multiple elements of daily life for our staff, providers and the people we serve have been fundamentally altered and we have been challenged to adapt almost everything we do.

First, let’s embrace the growth we have experienced. We have learned and adapted habits and practices. We have adjusted policies, procedures, financing arrangements and communication strategies. This is humans at our best: learning, growing, and of course, caring. When we follow Governor Kemp’s request to wear a mask, practice distancing, wash our hands, and get tested, we comply because we care about those around us and those we serve. Right now at DBHDD, we are not considering when this will end, but rather planning thoughtfully about what “COVID-19 Co-existence” should look like for a state agency. 

As we look to the months ahead, we have not settled upon answers so much as we are trying to ask the right questions, guided by our deepest values. I want to share with you those questions, and remind you of those values and express my continued gratitude for the heroes of daily effort.

To be clear when I think about “COVID Co-existence”, I consider that it must be customized co-existence, that is, customized to the people we serve across the safety net which looks different in different circumstances. In our five state hospitals, we have adopted essential safety protocols to protect staff and patients. Information about best practices has evolved in recent months and Dr. Risby, DBHDD’s Medical Director has led our review and implementation of new research to ensure that Georgia is applying evidence-based strategies. This effort feeds our crisis system practices so that we can join with our Community Service Boards and other partners across the state to facilitate crisis services that are responsive to the changing environment.

The challenges and solutions are not the same for community-based clinics and especially for services delivered in group settings for people with mental illness or intellectual and developmental disabilities. The considerations are complex and require us to lean in with hearts and minds open to what is possible.

All of this is necessary to address the most pressing question we face:

  • How do we keep Georgia’s public safety net for people with mental illness, substance use disorder and intellectual and developmental disabilities open for business?
  • Other important questions we are contemplating in our “Customized Co-existence” include the following:
  • How do we balance physical safety and the need for direct care? What are the situations where face-to-face contact is necessary and how can we facilitate this occurring?
  • How do we determine the individuals for whom telehealth is not sufficient or appropriate? How do we maximize and enhance these innovations where they do work?
  • How do we partner with families to ensure safe visitation with appropriate protections?
  • How do we support the financial viability of the safety net network amidst persistent economic challenges?
  • How do we address the isolation of vulnerable individuals in a remote environment?
  • How do we use the strengths and assets of the disability community to address some of the most vexing concerns?
  • How do we nurture our mission-driven culture of our team members when we remain in separate locations?
  • How do we offer accountability and transparency given the restrictions of social distancing?
  • How can we partner with advocacy organizations support, challenge and extend the reach of our collective mission to serve?

So the work ahead is this: To continue take steps forward on the most important questions. To acknowledge when we make mistakes and correct them. To commit to learning and to maintain our hope that even in the most challenging circumstances, recovery is possible, and independence achievable. The values that drive us: compassion, respect, hope and connectedness remain our guideposts. We are not alone, and neither are you!

As we ask the hard questions and wrestle with our customized co-existence, we know that we CAN do this…because we already are doing this. To each of you who continue to toil each day in service of others, I say again, thank you. We try, we care, we learn new things, we offer patience and grace, we deliver, we inform, we engage, and above all: we serve. Hope remains our greatest asset.