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Nursing home residents battling isolation during pandemic and holidays

Martha Leland was "very, very ill" with COVID-19 in March so staff moved her to a different wing within the Touchpoints nursing home in Manchester.

The woman Leland shared a room with as she fought the coronavirus was even sicker, and staff pulled Leland out of that room, too.

"I felt so bad to leave her," Leland said during a virtual meeting Monday. "She didn't have anyone else. She ended up dying anyway."

Leland recovered after months of complications, including the loss of her ability to swallow. She's grateful to those who nursed her, but said she and other residents have remained largely isolated from one another, and from the outside world, with little to do.

With residents once again confined to their rooms due to a recent COVID scare, a bright spot has been a person at Leland's facility who sings through the intercom.

"The challenge for us has been to live through this without the support of family and friends," she said.

Leland, 64, and Jeanette Sullivan-Martinez, 56, a longtime resident of the Pendleton Health & Rehabilitation Center in Mystic, described pandemic life inside their respective facilities to a state committee working on issues of socialization, visitation and caregiver engagement for residents of longterm care facilities.

Both women are advocates for residents inside their own facilities and members of a statewide Executive Board of Resident Council Presidents.

State Longterm Care Ombudsman Mairead Painter said it was important for the committee to hear from residents as nursing home operators and state officials work to balance social and emotional needs of residents with infection control.

"They can have input," Painter said Tuesday morning. "They can make their needs known and their fears around it, and be part of the solution."

Now that the holidays have arrived, along with the second wave of the virus and cold weather that makes outdoor visits with family difficult, the loneliness, boredom and depression of longterm care residents, often coupled with weight gain or weight loss and other physical manifestations, could deepen.

Facilities that are COVID-free can allow indoor visits and recreational activities, but some residents have reported that their homes have kept restrictions in place and admitted they fear exposure to the virus from visitors.

"Coming into the holidays, we usually had a huge holiday gathering," said Sullivan-Martinez, who has lived at Pendleton for 12 years. "That we will not be doing this year."

Sullivan-Martinez, who has multiple sclerosis, said she opted to live at Pendleton to get the care she needed and maintain a social life. She said that in the past five years, younger people have moved into rehabilitation facilities. She said residents may have physical limitations, but "our hearts and our feelings and our minds are very much alive."

"It's not a community anymore where people go to die," she said. "It's a facility where people go to live to the fullest."

Before COVID, Sullivan-Martinez said her mother could visit her regularly and bring her food, and residents dined together and had more opportunities for recreation and outings. She likes to eat "clean," and the lower-quality food at the home has caused her to gain weight. She grew teary as she described not being able to hold her first grandchild, now 6 months old, whom she has only seen once through a window.

Sullivan-Martinez said the recreation staff has been great about arranging virtual meetings with family via Skype, "but as you know it's not the same as one on one." She's hoping the facility will allow residents to meet with one another in small groups as long as the facility remains COVID-free.

Painter and Acting Public Health Commissioner Deidre Gifford sent a letter to longterm residents and family members Nov. 20 that lays out options for celebrating the holidays.

"I know the governor's office and DPH has been asking people not to visit in person over the holidays because of the increased cases in Connecticut, and we know that's really hard for people," Painter said.

Virtual celebrations remain the lowest risk, and Painter said she has distributed 80 projectors so that residents can have a large, projected view of family celebrations from their rooms. Families also have the option, under federal guidelines, to drop off a plate of food at the facilities.

A family visit to a facility is considered low to medium risk, depending on the number of visitors and the potential exposure to COVID-19 that any of the visitors may have had.

Resident visits to their family homes, with safety guidelines including mask wearing, hand washing, social distancing, and frequent cleaning of high-touch surfaces, is a higher risk, and Painter said residents should be aware they will have to quarantine for 14 days upon their return.

The highest risk are celebrations involving multiple households, and/or not following social distancing, handwashing, cleaning, or mask guidance.

The socialization and visitation subcommittee is one of four breakout groups of the recently formed Nursing Home and Assisted Living Oversight Working Group, which is scrambling to propose laws that will improve the response to the coronavirus pandemic and future pandemics.

With new procedures for testing of staff and residents, better supplies of personal protective equipment and cohorting, or grouping together ill residents, and regular infection control inspections, Connecticut is hoping to minimize the impact of the virus in longterm facilities during the second wave of COVID-19.

As of Nov. 17, 3,018 nursing home residents have died of COVID-related illness in Connecticut, according to the Department of Public Health. That's more than 61 percent of all COVID deaths reported in Connecticut to date.

During the weekend ending Nov. 17, the state's 214 nursing homes reported that 306 residents had tested positive for COVID-19 and 39 died of COVID-related illness.

At a news conference Tuesday, state officials said they are working with three nursing home operators to open four COVID recovery facilities, with a capacity of 334 beds, for COVID patients who are leaving the hospital or need more care than is available at their facility. The recovery facilities are in East Hartford, Meriden, Torrington and Wallingford.


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