Health Care

NEK nursing home doctor, seeing patients by Zoom, worries about Covid risk

maria fatigati
Maria Fatigati is a doctor at four Northeast Kingdom nursing homes who crosses the border from Canada, where she lives, every day. Courtesy photo

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Maria Fatigati hasn’t had much trouble at the border since the coronavirus crisis began.

The Canadian physician has been making the 30-mile trip from Magog, Quebec, to the Derby crossing for nearly 15 years, and most officials on both sides know her. 

Despite the partial closure of the border last month, travel restrictions between Canada and the United States, recently extended for another 30 days, haven’t been a problem.

What has, though, is the worry that she might get sick.

“I live with my husband and my kids — my two boys — and all three of them are asthmatic,” said Fatigati, the medical director of four nursing homes in the Northeast Kingdom. “If there was a positive case … I don’t think that I’d be going home. I’d have to stay somewhere else, because I’d be putting my family at risk.”

That might mean staying in the U.S.

Fatigati, who sees about 200 patients across the Kingdom, has a firsthand view of the fight against the coronavirus pandemic and the changes it has entailed for doctors — especially those working with older, rural patients.

Normally, she serves four care homes: Maple Lane in Barton, Union House in Glover, and the Bel-Aire and Newport Health Care centers in Newport.

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Because the facilities house people especially vulnerable to the new coronavirus — and because they’re so spread out — Fatigati’s schedule has become almost entirely digital. 

She meets with patients via Zoom from her office at North Country Primary Care in Newport and makes time for Covid-related conferences with other medical professionals. She only goes into the office to sign orders and prescriptions.

The switch to telehealth has brought about some unexpected benefits. Before, while she was with patients at one facility, she’d find it hard to respond to needs at other facilities because of the distance. And situations at other locations might have resolved by the time she could get there.

“Instead, with the Zoom, it’s like real time,” she said. “We can address the problem right there and then.”

About two or three times a month, she works a night shift at North Country Hospital. Because she has to quarantine after working there, Fatigati doesn’t see her nursing home patients in person anymore. The risk is too high, and the facilities have been taking precautions.

“I don’t think any day goes by that we don’t think about that,” she said. “Because we know that if it does get into a facility, it’s going to spread.”

She recalled hearing a provider on one conference call say that health care providers would likely contract the virus.

“And in my mind, I was like, ‘No, we just can’t get it,’” she said. “It would be devastating. We have small numbers.”

If an outbreak happened, between a half and a third of patients at any of the facilities she works with would get the virus, she believes.

Her new reality of meeting with patients through a computer screen sometimes spurs a sense of guilt, too.

“You’re here in the office, and you just want to be in the front line,” she said. “And we can’t.”

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Justin Trombly

About Justin

Justin Trombly covers the Northeast Kingdom for VTDigger. Before coming to Vermont, he handled breaking news, wrote features and worked on investigations at the Tampa Bay Times, the largest newspaper in Florida. He grew up across Lake Champlain in upstate New York, where he worked for The Buffalo News, the Glens Falls Post-Star and the Plattsburgh Press Republican. He studied English and political science at the University of Rochester.

Email: [email protected]

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