More than half of coronavirus outbreaks in Virginia are at long term care facilities, and those outbreaks can be especially deadly. RADIOIQ has this look at why nursing home residents are vulnerable and how their families are coping.
Almost a year ago Kitty Gray’s mother moved to an assisted living facility in Richmond. Now the community is on lockdown.
Her mother gets outside for a walk once a day, and watches a lot of Gray’s Anatomy on her iPad. But while she’s stayed healthy so far, her daughter still worries.
“Just that she could die in a hospital alone, because you can’t have visitors,” Gray said. “That would be awful.”
According to the Virginia Department of Health, more than 50-percent of the state’s recorded deaths from COVID-19 have been residents of long term care facilities.
Many of those deaths have been at two facilities. Canterbury Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center in Richmond recently reported its 50th COVID-19 related death, and more than 20 residents of Accordius Health in Harrisonburg have now died.
Judy Wilhide Brandt was a nurse in long-term care for decades, then a state regulator. Now she advises nursing homes around the country. “The devastation is indescribable,” she said during a recent phone interview. “It is awful.”
For the past month she’s been on the phone with facility managers who are unexpectedly on the frontlines of a viral battle. At first, she said, they didn’t have the weapons they needed: testing, PPE, and extra staff.
“We were sitting ducks and we knew it,” said Wilhide Brandt. “And we’ve been screaming and we’ve been going to heroic efforts to get PPE and to get testing.”
Widespread testing is vital because typically nursing home staff work in several facilities. If they have the virus and are asymptomatic there’s no way to know if they’re spreading it unless everyone is tested.
On top of that nursing homes are social environments. “You share your room, you get up in the morning, you go into the dayroom. You sit around the table with other residents, you play cards, you play bingo, you chat,” described Wilhide Brandt.
It’s an environment that’s supposed to be comforting and communal. But when a virus sneaks in? It’s a recipe for devastation.
Fortunately, things are getting a little better in Virginia.
Keith Hare is CEO of the Virginia Health Care Association and Virginia Center for Assisted Living. He says facilities have more PPE and testing capacity has ramped up, although neither is where it needs to be yet.
“This is a marathon not a sprint,” Hare said. “This virus is going to be with us for a long period of time.”
As facilities continue to work with the state and federal government to increase access to PPE and ensure residents’ physical health, experts say it’s also going to be important to remember mental health.
That’s a concern for Alycia Comer-Wright, whose mother has schizophrenia. Her doctors have warned that a more isolated lifestyle could result in increased delusions.
“It’s hard because you don’t really know how they’re being treated, but you know all of their activities also are pretty much…. they’ve lost a lot too,” she said. She and her children used to visit weekly. Now they all miss interaction with their grandmother.
Jennifer Pryor, a gerontologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, encourages people to reach out to their family and stay connected. If they can’t, she says to ask facility staff to help. “To say ‘How can you help me access my loved one? Is there something that we can do together so that I can communicate and stay connected?’” Pryor advised.
Communication has been key for Kitty Gray and her mother. They talk on the phone every night, and this week Gray and her siblings hosted a pizza party outside her mom’s window.
This story was updated Friday May 1 at 9:30 a.m. to reflect new numbers from the Virginia Department of Health.