FARGO — Being sick from the coronavirus can be a lonely experience. The vast majority of patients recover at home and remain in quarantine to avoid spreading the virus.

For many, the illness it causes, COVID-19, is like a bad case of influenza, with fever, headache, coughs and fatigue. But the disease can be unpredictable, sometimes taking an abrupt turn for the worse.

That can have dire consequences for people who are home alone recovering and might not be able to get to an emergency room.

To address that problem, Sanford Health has developed a home monitoring program for patients recovering from COVID-19. Hospitals have enough beds only for the sickest patients.

“We saw how these hospitals in other parts of the country were getting maxed out of capacity,” said Sarah Prenger, a Sanford executive who directs primary care. Also, she said, “We know that some patients do worsen with COVID.”

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Sarah Prenger, senior executive director of primary care and behavioral health at Sanford Health. Special to The Forum
Sarah Prenger, senior executive director of primary care and behavioral health at Sanford Health. Special to The Forum

So, Sanford patients who test positive for the virus are offered the home monitoring program. Those who enroll receive a kit including information as well as a thermometer and a device called an oximeter to measure blood-oxygen levels. Using a smartphone app, they log their vital signs and symptoms twice daily, morning and evening.

“Any adult can be on it,” Prenger said. “It’s typically for those who are at higher risk.”

Essentia Health also offers home monitoring for COVID-19 patients.

Scott Satermo, a 53-year-old Fargo resident, opted to enroll in Sanford's monitoring program. His symptoms were a headache, fever, cough — and fatigue so severe that he found it difficult to get out of bed for four or five days.

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Satermo, who has recovered from the illness, found the monitoring reassuring, especially having the ability to track his oxygen levels, which can drop to dangerous levels in some patients who aren’t even aware of it.

“I thought it was great,” he said. “You get so much anxiety. It’s really nice to have that.”

Scott Satermo of Fargo. Special to The Forum
Scott Satermo of Fargo. Special to The Forum

The oximeter showed that his oxygen levels were good, even though he felt horrible, with some chest tightness. “It calms you down,” he said.

During the first couple of days on the program, a nurse called to check in on him. Because he wasn’t having any problems, his daily contacts thereafter were by entering information on his smartphone.

A sister sick with COVID-19 who wasn’t on the program, however, developed shortness of breath and called an ambulance. The paramedics determined that her oxygen levels were fine; she was having an anxiety attack.

Respiratory symptoms and especially oxygen levels are critical, Prenger said. “That’s what we’re really, really keeping a close eye on,” she said.

The Sanford monitoring team gets an alert if a patient forgets to report symptoms, and someone calls to check in on the person.

“We’ve had some patients that have declined very, very rapidly,” and were sent to the emergency room, Prenger said. In some cases, home health nurses visit patients.

“It really depends on what the patient needs and where they need it,” she said.

The home monitoring program for COVID-19 patients can be a model for dealing with other illnesses to enable patients to stay out of the hospital, yet receive the care they need, Prenger said.

“I see this sticking around a long time,” she said. “I can see applications elsewhere. I think this will be one of the wins from COVID.”