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Nursing home outbreak over, but emotional trauma lingers

“We’re fighting a health-care war here. Every day that we don’t have somebody test positive for COVID is a day of healing for us.” Cady Bloodgood, Geer Director of Nursing

NORTH CANAAN — Two days before Thanksgiving, Kevin O’Connell, CEO of the Geer Village Senior Community, received welcome news: The latest round of testing on residents and staff at the on-site nursing and rehabilitation center “all came back negative” for COVID-19, he reported in a phone interview.

Over the past two months, Geer had been battling an outbreak of the virus, which had sickened 89 residents and staff at the nursing home, causing eight deaths among residents of that building on the large North Canaan campus. For O’Connell, the negative test results came as a blessing.

In a Nov. 26 update to staff, residents and family, he reported that with input from the state Department of Public Health (DPH), “we are confident to say that this outbreak is over.”

All unvaccinated staff will continue to be tested twice weekly; residents will be tested as needed (neither the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) nor DPH recommend routine testing of residents).

But while the imminent threat from the virus has subsided at the 120-bed nursing home, the psychological scars the outbreak has caused may take time to heal, noted O’Connell. He predicted that some staff, “will have a delayed response to the trauma. They haven’t yet had an opportunity to process their grief.”

The road to emotional recovery, said the Geer administrator, will begin with counseling assistance and peer support. “We do have many volunteers to help, including a social worker with the behavioral health company we use. They are planning support meetings with staff.”

O’Connell said he will also be exploring the availability of COVID-relief funds under a recent initiative aimed at addressing the mental distress of health-care workers that is part of the government’s $1.9 trillion COVID-relief package.

Like losing a family member

Cady Bloodgood, Geer’s Director of Nursing, oversees a staff of about 100 registered nurses (RNs), certified nursing assistants (CNAs) and support staff. Never in her 22-year career, she said, could she have envisioned experiencing trauma on such a scale. For the past two months, since the coronavirus started spreading through the nursing home, she has been working in crisis mode alongside administration and staff.

“I wouldn’t want to discount anything the [combat] veterans have gone through, but we’re fighting a health-care war here. Every day that we don’t have somebody test positive for COVID is a day of healing for us.”

Bloodgood, a mother of two young children, joined Geer in 2010 as a CNA. She spent time with several of the critically ill residents, all with underlying health issues, who recently succumbed to COVID-19.

“Our nursing home residents who passed away were long-term residents,” she said.

“Some had been here several years and are like family members to the nursing staff who have cared for them. It’s difficult enough to lose one, let alone eight, during the course of this outbreak. It is devastating to staff and to the families. They have lost people who are near and dear to them.”

She recalled the particularly heartbreaking challenges of some of the residents’ final hours. While the campus was off-limits to the public, “we did have visitation for those individuals who had a change of condition,” Bloodgood explained. Some families, she said, chose not to visit their loved ones due to fear of the contracting the virus, so staff assisted with the virtual good-byes.

Visitation restrictions have been lifted

Lock downs and social isolation have also added to the pain of the COVID crisis at nursing homes, nationwide and here in the Northwest Corner.

“Because of the outbreak we had to restrict movement between the buildings,” to prevent spread of infection, explained the nursing director. “The emotional toll of isolation on residents can be detrimental, not only to their mental health but also to their physical health.”

As a result, she said, staff had been increasing efforts to lift the spirits of residents by providing one-to-one visits in rooms, access to recreational activities and helping them stay connected with family and loved ones through virtual visits.

Updated guidance from CMS (which went into effect on Nov. 17) loosened the lock-down restrictions. Visitation is now allowed for all residents, at all times.

“Restrictions on visits must be lifted and education provided to residents and visitors on how to remain safe while here in the facility,” Geer officials said on Nov. 26.

For those who wish to continue remote visits, Geer is offering virtual and window visits on a scheduled basis through the recreation department.

Some can not cope, and they leave

“As an industry, we are in a very difficult spot. This is probably the most challenging time in my 30 years,” as an administrator, said O’Connell.

Nursing staff not only are doing their best to keep up quality of life for patients, they are also faced with the additional challenge of the cumbersone PPE protective gear.

“No wonder you see nurses leaving,” he said. “We’ve seen several staff just not be able to cope with it and have left nursing.”

Bloodgood said high staff turnover has many causes. “Some staff struggled with the additional worry of putting themselves and their families at risk.”

Add to that a staffing shortage, exhaustion from covering for sick co-workers, ever-changing COVID-19 regulations and reporting requirements, mandated vaccines and testing, and balancing work and family responsibilities. “We’ve had to change our lives as well.”

Those who stay, depend on each other for comfort, said the nursing director.

“It’s a combination of support emotionally between our families and our own employees.

“Here at Geer, we are a family, and it’s important to be able to talk to each other about what we’re dealing with,” Bloodgood said. “We also have one-on-one meetings with staff who are struggling emotionally and offer them mental health counseling.”

Backlash from the community

When an outbreak occurs at a nursing home, as was the case at the North Canaan Geer campus, the fallout can be devastating.

“Our staff, myself included, come in every day to take care of our residents. That is what we do,” said Bloodgood. “It’s not just a job. It is our heart and soul, and the residents are near and dear to us. So when we get backlash from others who unfairly judge us … it is disheartening and it really has taken a toll on staff.

“Some react with anger, others are emotionally distraught, saddened that that’s happening.”

O’Connell’s advice to his staff is to stay strong, to not respond to it and to not take the negative publicity personally. “You read the headlines written about you, you see how people comment on social media. Many of these people don’t work in nursing homes. We know the level of care we provide, and I think our families know it as well,” said the Geer CEO.

Both O’Connell and Bloodgood said families of residents have also been a source of comfort during difficult times. “The thing that has meant the most to me is the support from the individuals’ families, thanking me and my staff for all of our efforts during the outbreak.”

State reports rise in cases, deaths

While the Geer outbreak has subsided for now, officials are aware that, at any time, it could happen again.

According to the most recent bi-weekly report by the state Department of Public Health, between Nov. 10 and Nov. 23 COVID cases rose at Connecticut nursing homes, with 12 deaths, 125 positive cases among residents and 67 staff cases reported. The Candlewood Valley Health and Rehabilitation Center in New Milford reported five deaths, 36 positive cases among 105 residents and eight staff infections during the past two weeks.

“I am definitely concerned that we are not out of this pandemic, and I don’t expect we will be for a while. Definitely the community prevalence is still out there, and we have had a number of breakthrough cases among the fully vaccinated,” the nursing director noted, adding that, “I think booster shots are important for those that are eligible.”

So what keeps Bloodgood, who has so far kept herself safe from infection, coming back to work each day as the pandemic enters its second winter? Faith, she said, in her team’s ability to fight any future outbreaks.

“It’s knowing we have done it once now, and we can do it again if we have to. We have a great team and dedicated staff, and that helps me to keep going.”

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