Pivoting … Again
By Mark Morris
Just when it seemed COVID-19 was getting under control, the Delta variant of the virus took hold — and has encouraged many communities in Western Mass. to once again mandate wearing masks indoors.
With the variant showing no signs of slowing, BusinessWest checked in with several companies that serve seniors in the area — through home care, assisted living, and skilled nursing — to ask how they are navigating this stubborn virus that won’t go away.
They all have different stories, but one constant stands out: all of them have kept safety protocols in place that exceed the requirements of state and local mandates.
For David Ianacone, administrator at the Center for Extended Care and Rehabilitation at Amherst, rigid protocols are in place at all times to prevent infection problems.
“In the nursing-home business, we’re experts in infection control,” he said. “Long before the virus, we’ve had protocols in place known as ‘universal precaution.’”
Indeed, everyone who enters the facility must get their temperature taken and fill out a health questionnaire. Masks are required for staff and visitors at all times. Ianacone said 99% of the patients are fully vaccinated, and he estimated that 92% of the staff have received the vaccine.
“We have around 15 unvaccinated staff, most of whom work in the office or dietary area and are not in direct contact with patients,” Ianacone said. “They are tested every day before their shift begins.” If the test comes up positive, they have to leave.
The protocols have certainly been working; since January, when one patient at the center contracted the coronavirus, no staff or patients have tested positive.
This clean bill of health has allowed visitors to once again see their loved ones in person, but Ianacone pointed out there are restrictions based on the visitor’s vaccination status.
“If they are vaccinated and their loved one is also, they can meet with them closely in their room,” he explained. “But if a visitor is not vaccinated, we have a special room where they can visit in private, but they must maintain social distancing.”
Visitors to Cedarbrook Village at Ware have also returned to restricted visits with residents due to the resurgence of the virus.
Before Delta, Executive Director Kelly Russell said, families could visit with loved ones in their apartments and take meals with them. Since the resurgence, only a few guests can meet with the resident in a designated area that is disinfected after each visit.
“We’re actually going above and beyond what the CDC is recommending for our community,” she noted.
Before the Delta variant, the assisted-living facility was starting to return to normal activities like outings and even a trip to MGM Springfield.
“The residents had a great time at the casino, but we had to stop all trips like that because of the variant,” she said. “We also had to cancel the one-year anniversary of our opening that we had planned for September.”
Russell said her focus is now on “out-of-community risks,” meaning staff and residents out in public, residents coming out of acute settings, and visitors. Protocols are in place to mitigate risk in all these areas.
With vaccination rates among Cedarbrook staff at nearly 80%, the next challenge will be a state mandate that takes effect on Oct. 31 requiring everyone who works with seniors to be vaccinated.
“We have a responsibility to keep the residents in our community safe,” Russell said. “If there are still some people who refuse to get vaccinated, there’s a good chance they will not be able to work here.”
Girding for Battle
Patricia-Lee Baskin-Scholpp isn’t waiting for the state to act. The owner of Caring Solutions, a home-care company based in West Springfield, will not hire anyone who is not vaccinated. And, while 98% of her current staff is vaccinated, home care is an industry with lots of turnover.
“It’s already hard to find candidates, and by requiring a vaccination, the pool becomes that much smaller,” Baskin-Scholpp said. “Despite that, I won’t put my seniors at risk.”
A nurse by training, she discussed the reason she is passionate about vaccinations to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. “When you hold someone’s hand who is dying of COVID, it changes something in you.”
Baskin-Scholpp also believes we are in a war against COVID, and that one battle strategy worth embracing is wearing a mask. “I have N95 masks in many colors so our staff can make them part of their wardrobe,” she said. “We have to wear a mask anyway, so let’s own it.”
After several months without them, residents at Cedarbrook are back to wearing masks when they leave their apartments. For most, Russell said, it’s simply retraining.
“We opened at the height of COVID when many of our residents moved in,” she recalled. “At that time, they had their masks with them at all times. Now they just need occasional reminders.”
Because the virus is prone to change, Ianacone said he and his peers at other long-term-care facilities have an open communication stream with the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the state office of epidemiology. “From time to time, they will recommend new protocols for us to implement to keep everybody safe.”
State health officials had raised concerns when several nursing homes discovered cases of the Delta variant. Ianacone pointed out that the protocols to protect against the Delta variant are the same as protecting against the original coronavirus, so staying consistent in COVID-prevention practices works.
“Because our patients are vulnerable, we always go the extra mile in our safety measures,” he added.
Baskin-Scholpp and her staff of 70 caregivers routinely go the extra mile based on a simple principle.
“If you treat people the way they want to be treated, it works,” she said. “We believe people should be able to stay in their own home and shouldn’t have to pay a fortune to do so.”
She named her company Caring Solutions because she believes every challenge has a solution, even COVID.
“This virus isn’t going anywhere right now, so let’s do everything we can to keep everybody safe,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s really less about individual rights and more about protecting each other.”
As a new facility, Cedarbrook still has apartments available for new residents. When the pandemic first hit, many seniors and their families were fearful of moving into a senior community.
Since that time, as everyone gains more knowledge about the virus, Russell and her staff have continued their diligence with cleaning and safety protocols, which have helped many of those fears to subside.
“People are still able to take tours, and we simply follow a cleaning schedule after the visit,” she said. “As a result, we’re seeing four to six move-ins a month, which is great.”
Life on the Front Line
Reflecting on the past 18 months, Ianacone said he appreciates how grateful the families of his patients have been during a time of constant adjustment.
“Hearing from the families is very warming to us staff members because they feel we are doing a good job taking care of their loved ones and keeping them safe.”
While these senior service professionals wage their fight against a stubborn virus, they continue to succeed in keeping seniors in our community safe. Baskin-Scholpp may have summed up the reason for everyone’s dedication.
Simply put, she said, “I am very passionate about our seniors.”