With COVID-19 still an issue, safety precautions are still being taken
By Steve Yablonski
The elderly as well as those with chronic medical conditions are at higher risk for COVID-19. Both groups are heavily represented among the nation’s 1.3 million nursing home residents.
As COVID-19 surged early in the pandemic, nursing homes essentially shut their doors as they struggled to curb coronavirus entry and spread. Strict limits were instituted on visitation, communal dining and other resident activities.
Restrictions have loosened as vaccinations have increased.
But COVID-19 is still a threat and while area nursing homes are returning to normal, they are still playing it safe for residents and staff.
“We have offered activities and continued efforts to engage our residents throughout the pandemic. As of now (early March 2022), we are cautiously hosting small group activities indoors and are hosting entertainers and look to add to our activities in the weeks ahead and as we are able to utilize outdoor spaces when the weather improves,” said Greg Osetek, director of community relations for St. Luke Health Services.
Visitation is open and taking place, Osetek said. At this date and time, the New York State Department of Health requires all visitors to provide proof of a negative COVID-19 test result prior to entering any nursing home, he added.
“To meet this requirement you can provide us with documentation of a negative test or we will provide a COVID test kit onsite prior to visiting, which you can self-administer before being allowed into the building,” he said. “Current safety measures as prescribed by federal and state authorities require all visitors to complete a health screening, continue to wear a surgical face mask at all times, that we provide, and to perform hand hygiene during visits.”
Can residents have close contact with their guests during a visit and meet without a mask?
“Yes, it’s up to the resident,” Osetek said.
In keeping with guidelines, all visitors are asked to restrict their movements within the building, physically distance themselves from others and limit visits to resident rooms only. If there is a roommate present, “we are able to provide for privacy during a visit,” Osetek added.
“Residents are dining communally in our dining rooms or in their rooms. We are not able to allow visitors to eat with residents in our communal dining settings right now and expect this to change as conditions improve in the community and regulations are relaxed,” Osetek explained.
“Staffing was already a significant challenge for healthcare providers prior to the pandemic. These last two years contending with COVID-19 have only exacerbated the situation,” Osetek said.
In response, St. Luke has streamlined its hiring process and “along with our affiliates, we have made every effort to offer bonuses, wages and benefits that are attractive in the current local labor market, while strengthening our career ladder and educational opportunity programs for career advancement,” Osetek added.
“We have offered wage enhancements, flexible scheduling and have implemented many other incentives for our employees such as a commissary when daily items were difficult to find and free meals to all our staff, to name just a few,” he said.
To meet the financial challenges imposed upon their nonprofit, community-based organizations, St. Luke has been aggressive in seeking to maximize government pandemic relief programs as they have become available, according to Osetek.
“From another perspective, the pandemic has forced us to re-examine our operations; how we deliver care and services, our use of technology and how we manage and utilize our buildings and physical assets,” Osetek said. “We are evaluating ways we can continue to enhance a range of areas like infection control practices, making ourselves a safer and more comfortable place that enhances the experience for residents and employees alike.”
“What we’re trying to do is push forward beyond the pandemic. Part of going back to normal is doing things that the residents like to do,” said Jason Santiago, chief operating officer at The Manor at Seneca Hill.
“We have been trying to bring entertainment back safely at Seneca Hill Manor. Our residents depend on activities, increased socialization—we’ve been slowly getting back to that. Obviously we have to do that safely. So, as the weather turns, we want to have entertainment at our nice pavilion that was funded by our employee giving campaign; so we can have larger gatherings outside,” Santiago added.
The other thing that they do to keep residents engaged is to keep them connected to the community. “I think that’s important,” Santiago said.
A member of Fulton Sunrise Rotary, Santiago noted that the group has done a nice job of staying connected to Seneca Hill Manor residents. Rotarians did Valentine’s Day cards in February for residents. They did Christmas cards, as well.
“They did a great job sending 100 cards at a time. That’s done by a handful of Rotarians; our club has between 15 to 20 members,” Santiago said. “That number of people doing 100 cards, many hands makes less work, and our residents really appreciated receiving those cards.”
The Manor has been open for visitors since November, when Gov. Hochul allowed visitation for its residents.
“Our job requires human contact and engagement and closeness. That’s what health care is. That’s the part that, on a day-to-day basis, I’m really praying returns to that level of ‘normalcy’ and closeness and human contact.”
Joe Murabito, owner and president of Elemental Management Group
“She has done a really nice job of responding to things that she’s been hearing in office,” Santiago said. “Our residents have been isolated since March of 2020. And when you’re isolated and not able to have regular family visits it can lead to depression. There’s nothing that can replace that connection by having visitors. We have been having regular visitors since November of 2021. In the warmer months we’re able to do outside visitation. It was very limited, it was challenging. The hours were structured because at the time we really wanted to focus on keeping our residents safe from COVID because we know what the impact was on nursing home residents, globally not just in New York.”
Visitors are required to be tested within 24 hours of their visit. They are allowed to go in the rooms and spend some time with their loved ones.
All staff members are required to wear personnel protective equipment—masks, face shields or goggles, when necessary.
“And our visitors are required to do the same; they are required to wear PPE when they come in (or produce a negative test), Santiago explained. “They can disclose to us if they have been vaccinated.
“[Staff and residents] are doing the best they can with the circumstances that we have currently. We still wear the full PPE and have been doing that since March of 2020. The staff knows that they are here to do the best they can to keep our residents safe and give high-quality care. You’d never know from their interacting with residents that we are in a pandemic; they interact in a positive way. That’s the best way to do that—move forward and lead by example. That’s what our staff is doing.”
Getting back to normal
Joseph Murabito is owner and president of Elemental Management Group, which operates Morning Star Residential Care Center and The Gardens Assisted Living Community in Oswego as well as others in various counties.
“Things are headed toward normal. I’m happy about all that, really,” he said. “Our biggest struggle in any of our buildings right now is like everyone else, it’s just labor.”
“Our job requires human contact and engagement and closeness. That’s what health care is. That’s the part that, on a day-to-day basis, I’m really praying returns to that level of quote unquote ‘normalcy’ and closeness and human contact,” Murabito said. “We want to get people back into these direct care roles and support roles. I don’t care if it is housekeeping or laundry or nursing. The residents and their families need people in these capacities to come and do their good work. That’s very important. I think that a lot of things are settling out. This is the one area that I’d really like to see a little bit more pronounced movement.”
The latest variant of the coronavirus has presented itself, he said, adding “much, much differently than the first two. We’re still following PPE and social distancing guidelines. We’ve had some outbreaks; some are onesie, twosies and some are groups. But these are all duly vaccinated residents and duly vaccinated staff. So it basically manifested itself as a glorified cold.”
“The first two shots … we’re getting through Christmas and getting into the first week of January, we’re basically 100% successful. There are a couple people; we have five buildings, in the five, I think there were only three or four people who quit,” he said. “We were very worried about that. We really couldn’t afford to lose anyone. Even though it was just a handful across five buildings, we worried about it being much worse.”
“We did a lot of work; we did see good solid success with dual vaccination. There are just so many differing opinions of the vaccines—right wrong or indifferent,” he added.
The booster was considered as ‘fully vaccinated.’
“Across nursing homes, adult homes, hospitals, you have providers anywhere between 55% and 75% boosted. There are much stronger opinions against the booster in comparison to the first two shots, he said.
All the facilities are well-versed on how to handle infections. It’s no different than a flu outbreak in terms of your isolation; close down meals close down activities, he noted.
“Those are the sort of steps we’ve been doing the last two years. Even though the latest variant was milder, you still follow the same protocol. However the stress level and the fear is less,” Murabito said. “The anxiety and frustration of just the weight of it all, people are just sick of it. People in general, residents or staff; they are burned out on the rules.”
If there’s a facility that doesn’t have cases they have more flexibility. If there are facilities that have cases they have designated areas (for those who’ve tested positive).
The facilities are very prudent with it because they don’t want to have to deal with cases either, he added.
“People just want to get back in regular contact with their loved ones. More and more of that is happening for sure,” Murabito said. “We are actively coming back to more congregate group sort of functions.”
“We act accordingly; everyone is very used to doing it, very mindful of getting back to normal human contact. The residents are pleased to hear that. The staff are and the families are — everybody is. The staff and the residents, it is difficult to say who did it hit harder,” he said. “In places where there are active outbreaks we do go back to more restricted measures. In the buildings where there are no cases or very few, one or two people, they’re isolated. We’re very much more active in getting back into communal meals. We’re moving forward, but we’re just moving forward cautiously and carefully.”
Featured image: The Manor at Seneca Hill in Oswego.