Inside Southwest Colorado’s nursing homes, staff wear uncomfortable face coverings all day. Residents play hallway bingo sitting in their doorways – safely distant during the coronavirus pandemic. Families haven’t visited in person for months.
“We’re getting through it,” said Carla Vigil Shoub, a resident at Four Corners Health Care Center in Durango.
The measures seem to be working: No COVID-19 outbreaks have occurred at skilled care facilities in Southwest Colorado, including La Plata, Montezuma, Archuleta, Dolores and San Juan counties.
One way to keep it that way? Move faster than the government.
Outbreaks at nursing homes have drawn national attention because residents are vulnerable to serious cases of the disease. Colorado has launched a regular testing program, and administrators, staff and residents are settling into a long fight to keep the virus outside facilities.
“I watched very closely what happened in Washington state ... and recognized when you have a communal living situation, if you get a COVID case in there, it’s going to spread,” said Joyce Humiston, president of C&G Health Care Management.
Colorado has recorded more than 300 outbreaks as of Thursday, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Of those, more than 150 occurred in independent living, assisted living and skilled nursing settings, where outbreaks are reported when two or more residents test COVID-positive within a 14-day period. None have been reported in the five-county region as of June 17.
“I’ve had COVID nightmares because you see what’s going on in these large cities,” Humiston said. “The anxiety alone of just that was stressing people out.”
Preventing the spreadIn response to the virus, the facilities have followed guidelines set by federal agencies, states and local public health agencies to prevent the spread of the virus.
At C&G Health Care Management, which operates seven facilities in Southwest Colorado, staff members are screened daily for symptoms. Visitors are not allowed, and residents must wear masks outside rooms and practice social distancing. Administrators join regular emergency planning calls.
It’s the same at 27 SAVA Senior Care facilities in Colorado and Wyoming, including Four Corners Health Care Center, said Joe Reese, vice president of operations for the region. Other SAVA centers have reported outbreaks, but no residents at Four Corners have tested positive for the disease.
“At first, the challenge was things were changing nationally almost as fast as you could implement them,” Reese said. “Now the challenge is continuing to be isolated, certainly for the residents, and the day-to-day challenges that our employees face.”
None of the 600 residents in C&G nursing homes have tested positive either, Humiston said. In Cortez, five staff members tested positive for COVID-19, four without symptoms.
The companies have received state, federal and local support. San Juan Basin Public Health has provided long-term care facilities with testing kits and assistance, facility-wide testing at Four Corners, and thousands of surgical masks, gloves, face shields and medical gowns, said Claire Ninde, SJBPH spokeswoman.
Colorado, led by Colorado State University, launched a program in early May to conduct eight weeks of testing at 30 skilled nursing centers to track asymptomatic spread in staff. Both C&G and SAVA are part of the program, but the state hasn’t yet contacted them to begin testing staff members.
Instead of waiting, C&G started its own testing process. The company also shut down visitation before the state ordered it and found a testing supply when no one had enough tests.
“What I’ve learned through all of this, is if everyone’s going to sit back and wait for the government to tell us what to do, we’re going to have a problem,” Humiston said. “We didn’t (wait) from the very beginning, and I think that’s what’s helped us.”
The new normWhile the facilities have seen months of success, residents, families and staff are adjusting to a new norm to prevent the virus’ spread.
Lunch used to be a social hour. Now, most residents eat in their rooms. Exercise groups are limited to four people. The beauty shop closed at Cottonwood Inn Rehab and Extended Care Center, so a nursing assistant washes and styles the women’s hair.
“Hair, to the elderly ladies, is everything,” said Deb Snyder, administrator at the center.
Cottonwood staff have seen some signs of anxiety, isolation and sadness. Residents with dementia did not understand why they weren’t getting visitors. At times, some residents would start crying with no apparent reason.
Staff have limited their activity outside work. Snyder goes straight home from work and limits any other trips. One nurse said her three kids haven’t seen their friends in months to help prevent contracting the virus.
“We’re powering through this, but boy, it’s been difficult on both sides – our residents and our staff,” Snyder said.
Carla Vigil Shoub and her husband, Don Shoub, feel cooped up and wary as they pray for a vaccine. It’s sad they can’t see their families, they said.
Shoub’s sister, Christine Mullholand, said she could hear tension in the married couple’s voices when they got overwhelmed, especially in the first month.
“Now we’re learning to adjust that maybe this is going to be this way for a while,” Mullholand said.