Pain and the need for physical rehabilitation and therapy don’t stop because something brings much of ordinary life to a standstill.
Local physical therapists have continued to work during the COVID-19 pandemic, changing the way they operate to keep themselves and patients healthy as many businesses are shut down and people are urged to stay at home.
“Unfortunately, as quarantine and shutdowns happen, pain doesn’t go away,” said Kayla Williamson, co-owner of Momentum Physical Therapy. “We want to be here as long as we can to help our patients and our community who do deal with pain on a daily basis.”
Physical therapists are considered essential workers by the state and continue to help patients in their office as needed.
Although they’re allowed to see patients in person, the industry also has made some big changes to be as safe as possible while giving people their needed treatment.
“We’ve got people we’re seeing before and after our regular hours if they’re concerned, so there may be actually the only patient in the clinic,” said Gillette Physical Therapy CEO Ken Clouston. “We eliminated waiting room chairs, treatment tables. We’ve got everything 6 feet apart.”
Clouston said his clinic also eliminated 150 patient time slots a week to ensure fewer people are in the clinic. He also doesn’t let patients come in if they’ve been out of state in the last five days.
Overall, Clouston said Gillette Physical Therapy has been down in patient visits by about 40% since the COVID-19 outbreak protection measures were put in place.
“You get worried about your patients. You get worried about your staff. You get worried about your families, so you just kind of take every precaution that you can,” Clouston said.
Other changes at many physical therapy businesses include sterilizing everything in the building more often, screening patients before they come in and making sure patients wash their hands when they walk in and out.
“When patients walk in, we have them use GermX, we check their temperature and have them fill out a form,” said Faith Harvey, who works the reception desk at Hand Therapy of Wyoming. “We do that to every patient every day even if they come in every day. They go through the whole check-in process every day.”
Campbell County Health’s rehabilitation service has switched to wearing masks in recent weeks, spokeswoman Dane Joslyn said.
She said a lot of the treatment is being done over the phone or through FaceTime, and for some patients, health care providers travel to their homes.
North Platte Physical Therapy office manager Brittany Vandom said older patients and others who originally elected to stay home have returned because, for them, the benefits of hands-on physical therapy outweighs the risks of contact.
“We have some of our elderly patients that still do come in because they need it,” Vandom said. “One of our patients decided it’s been the two weeks since they’ve said they needed to stay home, and they came out and they realized it is something serious to take, but also they can definitely tell that they need their physical therapy too.”
In recent weeks, North Platte has made masks available for patients, used private treatment rooms and offered more out-of-office home exercise programs, said supervisor Ben Mangus.
“We’re here for the community any way we can be, whether it’s coming in for some therapy or you need a home program or you need a ride somewhere,” he said. “We just want to make sure we’re here for everybody.”
At Core 307 Physical Therapy, a smaller practice in town, owner and physical therapist Brittany Farella has been focusing primarily on patients who are “medically necessary.”
“They’re the people who had surgeries recently, acute onset back pain or injuries that they just cannot wait weeks to receive treatment,” Farella said. “We hear rumors that it could potentially be even longer, up until the summer, (until) some of this settles down and there’s just no way ... some of these patients can wait that long.”
When it comes to physically working with patients, the hands-on approach is ideal, many said. However, more patients are electing to stay quarantined at home and receive workouts they can do themselves.
“I do truly feel like physical therapy is a very manual therapy-based practice. You don’t truly get the full benefit of physical therapy without the touch,” Williamson said, adding that therapists may have to do more no-contact treatments.
The Wyoming Telehealth Network, an online service that runs through the University of Wyoming, has been another option for patients who don’t want to leave their homes. Like a medical Zoom or FaceTime, Telehealth allows providers to talk to patients, explain things and give instructions through a video conference.
Ryan Schrock, co-owner and therapist at Rehab Solutions Physical Therapy, said that he communicated immunocompromised patients weeks ago about setting up home health or Telehealth.
Initially, health insurance companies would not reimburse for the Telehealth service, but that stance has changed with many, Schrock said.
Schrock said his business has stayed busy because of Rehab Solutions’ partnership with Healing Hearts Home Health and the use of Telehealth.
He said that when the Rehab Solutions’ clinicians do home health visits they wear masks and gloves, and then make sure that they have changed and cleaned before they go home or back to the clinic.
Even while working to safely see their patients, many local physical therapy operations say they’ve treated fewer people during the pandemic as they want to stay inside. That has meant cuts to some hours and pay for employees.
Local surgery centers have stopped doing non-emergency procedures, which also has reduced the number of patients who need physical therapy.
Clouston said he cut pay by 20% at Gillette Physical Therapy a couple of weeks ago, but he hasn’t had to lay anyone off.
“We’re losing money, but we’re still open and we’re still seeing people and just trying to make it work and see how long we can help people and keep everybody employed,” he said. “I mean, there’s an end to this, and I think there’s all these people that need therapy and need surgeries.
“So, as soon as we’re through this, it’s going to be probably an onslaught of patients. We just all got to work together and keep each other safe and get through this.”