‘We’re throwing kisses now’

Local nursing homes close doors, try to protect residents from COVID-19

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As the spread of COVID-19 worsens in Illinois, nursing homes and assisted living facilities across McHenry County are prohibiting all visitors and monitoring the health of residents and staff constantly for signs of the virus, according to staff.

Last week, Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike announced an outbreak of the coronavirus in a longterm care facility in DuPage County, Chateau Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, where the virus quickly spread to infect 30 residents and 12 staff members.

“Residents in nursing homes are our most vulnerable population, and we are doing everything we can to protect them,” Ezike said. “We may see cases in other longterm care facilities, which is why it is so important that we all do our part to reduce possible exposure in the community to those who go in and out of these facilities as they provide care to residents.”

Since then, the IDPH has recommended that longterm care facilities restrict all visitors, with exceptions made only for “end of life” visits.

The IDPH also advised that facilities cancel group activities and group dining and that they implement daily screening of residents and staff for symptoms associated with the virus.

While this announcement may be frightening for McHenry County residents who are used to regularly visiting loved ones in nursing homes, nursing home administrator Thomas Annarella said that residents are in good hands.

At Valley Hi Nursing Home in Woodstock, “we actually closed our doors to visitors before the state IDPH guidelines,” Annarella said. “We’re now encouraging visits by Skype and FaceTime.”

Valley Hi is supporting residents in using these technologies as part of its daily programming, activity director Linda Barrett said.

“We have iPads and Chromebooks available, and we talk them through how to do it,” she said.

Video calls allow family members to spread cheer to their loved ones without putting their safety at risk, Barrett said.

“Being able just to see their faces is all that they need sometimes,” she said.

Executive director for Hearthstone Communities Jeremy Rutter said they also are allowing “e-visits” via Skype or FaceTime as well as occasionally allowing family members on the grounds to wave at their relatives through the window.

“We’re doing all that we can do to keep our residents safe and understand how difficult it is for families and loved ones not to be able to visit,” Rutter said. “I want people to know that their loved ones are taken care of. We have an amazing staff in place that are our frontline heroes out here doing amazing, amazing work, and I am very proud of them.”

Hearthstone Communities has housing options for independent living and assisted living, as well as a skilled nursing care facility called Hearthstone Manor, Rutter said.

Hearthstone is conducting regular screenings of residents and staff for respiratory symptoms in addition to requiring that temperatures be taken daily, he said.

According to a news release, as the IDPH continues to ramp up its COVID-19 testing abilities, the department “will prioritize testing for our most vulnerable populations, such as those who work or live in nursing homes.”

Before each shift, Valley Hi staff members are required to take their temperature and complete a form that asks about their potential exposure level to the virus, Annarella said.

“If they don’t pass the screening for any one of the reasons on the sheet or for their temperature, we send them home and then just kind of reevaluate at the next shift,” he said.

Valley Hi Nursing Home is hiring for a variety of positions to ensure the facility will be fully staffed in the event that any of its workers contract the virus, Annarella said.

“We would love to have more staff added in to help kind of ease the burden on the ones that are working really hard right now,” he said.

David Smeltzer, president and CEO of Heritage Ministries, Hearthstone’s parent company, said that Hearthstone Communities also is hiring.

“We know there are a lot of people that are out of work right now,” Smeltzer said. “If they would rather work than collect unemployment, we have jobs ... from housekeepers and dietary workers to laundry folks to maintenance.”

Aside from needing more personnel, Smeltzer said his biggest concern if an outbreak were to occur at a longterm care facility would be sourcing enough personal protective equipment.

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