Mount Joseph staff has been on the front lines of COVID-19 pandemic
Once the COVID-19 pandemic began ravaging the world, nearly everyone seemed to be at its mercy. The severity of symptoms were varied and indiscriminate. Some people felt no ill effects; others died. The virus insidiously entered schools, churches, hospitals, businesses - anywhere and anyplace that a human host could be a carrier.
Medical data made it quickly apparent that one segment of society would be hit hardest by the coronavirus: the elderly.
Nursing homes became virus battlegrounds.
A nursing home is usually the highest level of care for older adults outside of a hospital. Facilities offer everything from custodial, personal and medical assistance, to full-time nursing services.
The first warning of the devastation that the coronavirus could wreak inside American nursing homes came in late February, when residents at a facility in Kirkland, Washington, succumbed at a shockingly high rate.
Though the number of people in nursing homes represent less than 1% of the total American population, they accounted for 31% of the deaths in the initial months of the pandemic.
It is a tragedy that continues to unfold. Nursing homes have become the front lines in the battle against this virulent disease. The healthcare staff dedicated to battling the virus often fall victim, as well. They must balance concerns for their own health with the needs of their patients, and sometimes the loss of a resident to whom they've grown close. The emotional toll can be overwhelming.
Mount Joseph Senior Village is one of the eldercare facilities in Concordia. It is a CCRC (continuing care retirement community) with 12 Independent Apartments, 16 Assisted Living Apartments, and 60 Skilled Nursing Beds. The facility encompasses 48,000 square feet under roof on a 10-acre site.
Jennifer Hunter, RN/BSN/LNHA, is the Mount Joseph Administrator who has led her staff's exhausting battle against COVID-19.
"At first we hoped it (COVID-19) would just be a bad form of the flu," Hunter said. "But when we saw the devastation it had on that Washington nursing home, we knew this was going to be a real threat to us."
Mount Joseph partnered with the Kansas Department of Health and Environment (KDHE), the CDC (Centers for Disease Control), and the Cloud County Health Department (CCHD) to implement new guidelines and procedures. Initially, like many healthcare facilities, Mount Joseph struggled just to get needed Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).
"We were going to general contractors, construction companies, to try and find enough masks," Hunter said.
The new guidelines were strict, but necessary. Facilities closed their doors to all visitors, including the family members of residents.
"That was a difficult decision," Hunter said. "It was hard on the residents and their families, and our staff, too."
The procedures worked, for awhile. "We were able to keep it out of the building until October 29. Then it hit us, and it hit hard."
As the virus spread through Mount Joseph, the staff set up a special Covid ward called Covid Cove, where they sheltered residents who had tested positive. The staff entered and exited the ward through an emergency door only.
K'Lynn Barr, CNA/CMA, has been working the Covid ward since its inception.
"I work the night shift," Barr said. "I come in at 5:30 p.m., enter through the back door, gown-up with PPE, and then I work the floor until 6:30 in the morning."
Barr usually works three days in a row, then has two days off, then works over the weekends. She has two teenage children, and her hours mean that she misses a lot of her children's activities. "I miss things, but I was working this Covid unit from day one, and I'm going to continue to work it until this thing is finally gone and we can shut it down."
Her worst day? "We had six positives in one day," she said. "And I got Covid, too."
Barr puts her own health at risk, but doesn't think twice about the work she does. "The residents here are like a part of my own family. I let them use my cell phone to FaceTime with their relatives. You care about them so much, and that makes it hard to watch them just suddenly pass away. You hold their hand as they take their last breath. With Covid, with this job, you shed a lot of tears."
It is a fact that death is a part of the cycle of all human life. At a nursing home, it is something the staff knows they will have to deal with. "We know it will happen at some point," said Hunter. "We are trained and educated on how to cope with the dying process. But not like this. Not this much all at once. This COVID-19 thing has brought us all to tears. Our staff puts on a brave face, but there have been times when we have broken down and cried behind closed doors. Every loss is one too many."
Mount Joseph had dozens of COVID-19 cases among its residents and staff, and multiple COVID-19-related deaths.
The loss of a resident affects the entire staff, and the other residents. Being in a lockdown without the ability to see family members and friends takes its toll.
"We have one elderly patient with dementia, but he always recognizes his daughter," Hunter said. "She was waving to him through the window, and he just cried and pressed his hands to the glass and begged us to let her in. Those kind of moments affect you on a very deep level. It's heartbreaking."
Hunter described another resident to whom she had grown close. "I saw a gentleman who had tested positive for Covid on a Tuesday. At first he was just a little weak. By Wednesday he was struggling to breathe. He passed at 4 p.m. on Wednesday. He was gone in about eight hours. We couldn't get family members here in time. I held his hand. Seeing someone struggle just to breathe is such a traumatic thing."
As double-shifts for the staff piled up, and some of them contracted the virus, Mount Joseph brought in traveling nurses to help out. One of those nurses was Tonisha Kenty. Mount Joseph wanted to clarify several of the remarks Kenty had made in a Blade-Empire article:
'Mount Joseph appreciated her service to the county, and her assistance as an LPN. But Ms. Kenty was not correct when she said Mount Joseph had five strains of the virus. There was absolutely no evidence of that. Also, Ms. Kenty did not run the COVID-19 unit at Mount Joseph, but worked in her capacity as a temporary contract nurse.'
Kristi Beam, LPN, is the Assistant Director of Nursing at Mount Joseph, and the Infection Control Nurse. She has been with the facility for five and one-half years.
Beam does all the virus testing at Mount Joseph, and handles the unending paperwork that comes with a pandemic. Twelve- hour days are the norm.
"About 95% of my day is Covid-related, and a lot of that is dealing with paperwork."
Beam tests residents and staff twice a week. "I do about 100 tests each of those days, so in the past three months I've administered thousands of tests."
For Beam, the worst part of the Covid crisis is watching the effect it has on residents.
"This thing just completely takes over the lives of our elderly population. It really tears at you to watch them suffer. And it's not just those who have had Covid. The residents make friends with other residents. It's hard to notify them that their friend passed away. Or their spouse. Some of our residents have dementia, so it's really difficult for them to fully understand what is going on."
Social isolation and quarantine have adverse effects on human beings, perhaps more so for residents in nursing homes. Feelings of loneliness, depression and anxiety among residents increased when nursing homes were forced to close their doors - even to relatives and family members - in an effort to flatten the virus curve.
"I would love for us to go back to normal, for our residents to be face-to-face with and hug their families and friends again," said Hunter. "But when that happens, I think it's going to be a 'new normal.' This virus forced a lot of businesses to change the way they operate, especially in the healthcare field."
The new vaccines offer hope. On Monday, December 28, the residents and staff at Mount Joseph who wanted to be inoculated, were. They will all get their second shot January 18.
"Our residents have survived so much trial and tribulation in their lives," Hunter said. "They've seen war and hard economic times. Our oldest resident is 102 years of age. Sometimes they don't understand how this virus can be so disruptive. But they're tough. They are fighting back."
As of December 30, 2020, Mount Joseph had no COVID-19 cases among its residents or staff.
The months spent on the front line fighting the virus and struggling to keep their residents healthy has taken a toll on the Mount Joseph staff, but Hunter feels it has made them all stronger. "This has been a war for us, day in and day out," she said. "We so appreciate the love and support from the community and the families of our residents. We want everyone to know how thankful we are for the kind words. The positive affirmation keeps us going. Our staff here at Mount Joseph is in this fight until it's over and our residents are safe from this virus."
Many words have been spoken about the courage and tenacity of our first responders, especially the doctors and nurses on the front lines of this pandemic war. Take a moment to say a word of thanks for the healthcare workers who have dedicated their lives to taking care of our most vulnerable Americans - the elders who helped make this nation great.