Nfld. & Labrador

Retirement homes on edge as Public Health tries to prevent more COVID-19 outbreaks

As multiple N.L. congregate living facilities experience COVID-19 outbreaks, Public Health is tightening visitor restrictions and implementing quarantine measures to prevent further spread.

Around 80 residents at Bishops Gardens are in quarantine

Dr. Monika Dutt, chief medical officer of health for Central Health and Western Health, said the recent outbreaks at long-term and personal-care homes are concerning. (CBC)

Public Health officials have battened down the hatches at Newfoundland and Labrador's long-term and personal-care homes as it tries to prevent — or in some cases, mitigate — the spread of COVID-19.

Dr. Monika Dutt, chief medical officer of health for Central Health and Western Health, says she's concerned about ongoing outbreaks in long-term and personal care homes across the province.

"It's something all through the pandemic that we've really worked hard to try to prevent," Dutt said in an interview with CBC News on Monday.

"We're definitely following these outbreaks, as well as other potential exposures throughout the region and the province very closely as we try to prevent any further illness in any of our communities and our homes."

As of Monday, 46 residents and 44 staff members had tested positive at the Bay St. George Long-Term Care Centre in Stephenville Crossing, said Western Health in a statement. Staff from other areas of the regional health authority have been redeployed to help with resident care.

Additionally, as of Friday, four cases of COVID-19 had been confirmed at the long-term care home in Happy Valley-Goose Bay and as of Saturday 43 residents at a nursing home in Kippens had also tested positive.

Public Health introduced strict visitation guidelines at congregate living facilities at the end of December. Residents are permitted one essential support person, while all other visitation is suspended.

At homes with outbreaks or potential exposures, all visitation is prohibited and many residents are isolated in their rooms.

Seniors in isolation

Dr. Natalie Bridger, Eastern Health's head of infection prevention and control, said last week that nearly every congregate living facility in eastern Newfoundland has had a COVID-19 exposure. 

Bishops Gardens, a personal-care home in St. John's, was added to that list on Sunday. 

About 80 residents are now under two weeks of isolation, unable to see friends and family in person until that period has passed.

All residents returned negative test results on Tuesday, but are still under quarantine as per Eastern Health protocol, said a spokesperson for the home.

Rita Baker, one of the residents currently under quarantine in her room, said sticking with her routine and keeping busy has helped alleviate the monotony of isolation.

"I do everything that I would do if I weren't locked down," she said. "I can play bridge on the computer, I listen to the radio, I watch TV a bit, read. I do my exercises.… Before you know it, the day is gone."

She said the staff are supporting residents through quarantine by bringing refreshments, maintaining communication and doing one-on-one exercises.

Baker said she's connected with family via FaceTime and talking to other residents on the phone — taking the isolation one day at a time.

"When I wake up in the morning, I decide I'm going to have a happy day and I have happy thoughts. My family are fine. My two boys are fine and I just keep going," she said. "This is not going to go on and on and on forever."

"Fortunately, right now, we don't have any residents who are experiencing symptoms from COVID-19," said Mike Powell, president of Bishops Gardens owner Fort Amherst Health Care. "We're following the direction of the health authority."

He said the home learned of the exposure on Sunday afternoon with all residents tested by Monday. A number of employees are also in isolation, but Powell didn't know the number.

Dealing with visitor restrictions

Kingsway Living is another personal-care home company that owns multiple homes across the province, many of them in central Newfoundland.

Ashley Norman, a spokesperson for the company, said no Kingsway homes have had COVID-19 exposures yet.

"We definitely took that very seriously, because it's scary when our seniors get sick because they are definitely more susceptible to getting serious symptoms," Norman said. "We made sure we were following all of the public health guidelines."

Family members visit through a window at Kingsway Living in Grand Bank in March 2020. (Kingsway Living/Facebook)

Norman said most of the common spaces in the homes are on the ground floor, which allow the "window visits" that were common when long-term and personal-care homes locked down at the beginning of the pandemic.

"We're just making sure that even though they can't be with their families, they are still able to see their family, interact with their family," she said.

Norman said residents are feeling the stress of the new visitor restrictions, but are taking some comfort in the communities within the homes.

"The residents are just really glad to have each other rather than being home alone," she said.

She said the number of staff members in isolation due to COVID-19 changes daily.

"The staff are definitely tired with everybody having to isolate if they've been exposed to somebody or even had one symptom," Norman said, adding the mood is positive overall.

"They do their best to keep each other's mood up, which is really nice."

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

With files from Carolyn Stokes

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