The novel coronavirus pandemic is proving especially deadly for residents of nursing homes and assisted living facilities nationwide, but Vashon Community Care (VCC) is beating the odds and has not reported a single case of COVID-19 since closing its doors to visitors two months ago.
In the meantime, VCC’s 34 staff members have dutifully observed social distancing measures, wearing masks at all times of the day while seeing to the needs of residents living in isolation in their private apartments. The focus now is on keeping spirits up and making sure residents are engaged, and the care team is hopeful the protocols in place will be enough to keep the virus out, said Executive Director Wendy Kleppe.
“You’re just holding your breath every day,” she said, “because it could hit anytime.”
Both staff and residents are rigorously screened for symptoms daily including temperature, noted Kleppe. The care team is regularly briefed and updated on guidance issued by the Washington State Department of Social and Health Services, and nurses have the additional workload of tracking the movement of anyone who comes into the building in the event of an outbreak so health officials can identify the sick and those they interacted with, a process called contact tracing.
Kleppe said the responsibility of caring for a vulnerable population weighs on her and the team but that the crisis has brought out the best in the staff at VCC as well as the community, which she said continues to show gratitude for their work.
“To be in long-term care, to work in geriatrics as we do, it just takes a certain kind of person who is just so invested and caring for this population that you just want to do everything you can to keep them safe and healthy,” she said.
She added that in the span of the crisis, the entire industry has undergone a dramatic change, as caregivers now work in settings that more closely resemble hospitals with the additional sterilization practices in place. Bellevue-based nonprofit Transforming Age, which operates VCC, provided a UV light sterilizer this week to annihilate viruses that cross its path while hard-to-reach areas across the building are sprayed down to eliminate any lurking threat.
“I’m so thankful that we don’t have [COVID-19], and we’re just so fortunate to be in a place where we can say, ‘yes, we don’t have it,’ but cross our fingers it doesn’t ever come,” Kleppe said.
On Monday, Vice President Mike Pence held a video conference call with state governors to discuss testing, commerce, and providing personal protective equipment to nursing homes. During the call, Pence told the governors that The White House now strongly recommends testing residents and staff of skilled nursing facilities for COVID-19 in the coming weeks according to The Associated Press, though at press time it was still unclear why such testing was not already mandated or why the recommendation was made after nearly 80,000 Americans have perished two months into the pandemic.
VCC is not a skilled nursing facility, so the recommendation doesn’t appear to compel staff and residents to test for the virus. But Kleppe said VCC will work with the Department of Health if further guidance is issued to test as more become available.
Last week, AP reported that nursing home residents accounted for more than 26,000 of the nation’s total coronavirus deaths. But imposing strict quarantine procedures, while among the most effective means of protecting seniors, is itself a source of potential harm, posing a tightrope walk between ensuring safety while promoting whatever opportunities for socialization remain possible.
Seniors are uniquely at risk of becoming isolated, Kleppe said, and staff is responding accordingly, often with the help of an army of local volunteers. Residents who are mobile are able to take an occasional stroll with friends and loved ones outside the building, so long as they maintain a six-foot radius between themselves and others. Group activities have been adjusted and only consist of a maximum of two or three participants in the interest of social distancing. Kleppe said an additional challenge for staff lies with continuously reassuring those who suffer from cognitive issues such as dementia that they are being taken care of, as they may not understand what the restrictions are for or forget what they were told about them.
“A lot of our energy is just spent around coaching, and just being with them and letting them know, ‘it’s going to be okay, you’re not being punished because you have to wear a mask,’” she said.
The many new normals of life in a pandemic have been difficult to process for families as well, coming with added worry over the care and safety of elderly loved ones who remain separated from them. But some with family members living at VCC say the facility is a model of excellence and stability in an uncertain time.
Terri Alman said her 97-year-old mother, Mavis Phaneuf, who lives at Vashon Community Care, is staying active despite the myriad of changes the pandemic has made to her daily routine. Donning a mask, Phaneuf is able to get around the building with her walker to stretch her legs, beginning each morning with exercise. She has continued to participate in the activities offered at VCC even during the quarantine, Alman said, such as art classes.
When confined to her room, Alman said, Phaneuf chats with the nurses or younger aides on their rounds, and she stays in touch with family through FaceTime or by phone.
Alman said she thinks the onset of the pandemic was hard on her mother — she and her family can’t visit anymore or take her out to lunch like they used to — but Phaneuf has adjusted well under the circumstances and is doing just fine now. Alman said her family is immensely grateful to VCC, and that she believes her mother is in good hands, pandemic or not.
“I feel that she is in about the safest place that she can be,” she said.
Martha Ensen’s parents, married for 68 years, moved to VCC last August. It wasn’t long after Ensen’s father passed away in February that the doors were shut to the public as the virus began to proliferate elsewhere in the state, a difficult time made worse by the fact that Ensen and her family couldn’t be with her mother, Beatrice, to share their grief.
But Ensen, who also belongs to a community advisory committee for VCC, said the staff was sensitive to the situation, going above and beyond “to be communicative and listen, and respond to what we asked for, and to be available.”
“I felt very heard,” said Ensen. “Like, they weren’t saying, ‘I’m sorry, this is a COVID virus, we can’t do anything to help you.’ They were like, ‘what do you need, [and] how can we figure out a way to give you that?’”
In recent days islanders have been giving back, raising more than $11,000 as part of VCC’s Give Big fundraising campaign. On Sunday, islanders drove in a procession past VCC waving homemade signs and wishing all a Happy Mothers’ Day. Marjorie Butcher, a third-grade teacher at Chautauqua Elementary School, was one of the parade-goers and said she was honored to attend to support the residents who may have relatives that live far away, with no word on when they’ll see them next, let alone when they can emerge from isolation.
“You’ll take that caring and love from anyone you can get it from when you’re stuck inside like that,” Butcher said.
In light of the pandemic, Butcher’s 25 students recently chose a new social action project for the year, tabling plastics pollution, for now, to instead rally around Vashon’s elders. As part of their efforts, four residents at VCC will soon become pen pals with a select few elementary students. Butcher said many more in her class want their own pen pal at VCC, and she believes the project has room to grow in the future. Anything to let seniors know they are loved and cared for, she said.
“To me, I feel so lucky to be going through this here on this island,” Butcher said. “Being a small community where you know who needs help, and where you can reach out and connect, it’s huge, so I feel like we’re so, so lucky.”