As COVID-19 restrictions have loosened across much of the United States, long-term care facilities still find themselves in a very restricted environment.
Because of how deadly the novel coronavirus is to older populations, Washington long-term care facilities are on a different path to recovery than the general public. Such facilities saw strict lockdowns in the late winter and early spring, but have more recently seen some communal activities return.
Tim Cross, executive director at Touchmark at Fairway Village, said the assisted living facility in Vancouver has begun to offer more communal dining and has started hosting outdoor social events, with proper safety guidelines in place.
“That’s really what they are here to do is socialize and make friends,” Cross said. “They’re getting to feel like there is some sort of light at the end of the tunnel.”
The facilities — just like the rest of the U.S. — still have a long path back to normalcy, but increasing socializing is important, said Drew Shaffer, executive director at The Quarry Senior Living in Vancouver.
“More and more of our elderly residents are declining from a mental health standpoint because of a lack of social stimulation,” Shaffer said.
To help combat loneliness, The Quarry has set up window visits for its residents, allowing residents to visit with family through windows. They also have an internal TV system, where they can live video-stream fitness or art classes to residents’ rooms. Employees will drop off paint brushes for residents so they can participate in the classes.
“We’ve gotten creative with it,” Shaffer said.
At the start of the pandemic, long-term care facilities were among the hardest hit by the virus — congregate settings with a vulnerable population.
So far, long-term care facilities account for close to 55 percent of Washington’s total COVID-19 death count. The facilities have been linked to more than 68,000 deaths nationwide, and close to 40 percent of the U.S. death toll, according to the New York Times.
Increased restrictions have helped stem transmission and death locally, but the facilities are still very at-risk; they are in many ways only as safe as the communities that surround them.
Senior care facility staff live with the general public and can transmit the virus to residents. The ever-present vulnerability was evident last week when an outbreak at Avamere Rehabilitation of Cascade Park in east Vancouver became public.
That outbreak, five months after the pandemic arrived in Clark County, is the largest local care facility outbreak so far.
“Long-term care facilities are not on an island. They are part of the community,” Clark County Public Health Officer Dr. Alan Melnick said last week. “When you have more activity in the community, you are going to see more activity in long-term care facilities. I’m urging and begging people of any age to physically distance and wear masks.”
Protecting staff and residents was more difficult early on when there were severe personal protective equipment shortages. Melnick remembers some facilities using trash bags as gowns.
Shaffer and Cross said their facilities were fortunate to so far be spared from a major outbreak. Shaffer said The Quarry had one worker test positive, and Touchmark has had no cases yet.
Both facilities conserved protective equipment over the winter, and had good reserves when COVID-19 was discovered locally in March. Cross said, “Having the stash allowed for us to order more and weather the delay” in procuring protective equipment.
Shaffer said one thing he’s happy about has been the camaraderie between different long-term care facilities. He mentioned that when Highgate Senior Living had a large outbreak in April, local senior care facility workers dropped off pizza for Highgate staff.
“This created a lot of camaraderie with our team, and between myself and Touchmark and other people that are your ‘competitors,’” Shaffer said. “We are all going through this together.”