East Troy Manor invited families of its residents to a balloon release last month. The balloons carried messages of hope from residents and family members who enjoyed the chance to visit in a safe, outdoor setting in the midst of the COVID-19 crisis. (Tracy Ouellette photo)

Area nursing homes battle COVID-19 on the front lines

By Tracy Ouellette

SLN Staff

While much is still not known about COVID-19, one of the things medical experts agree on is that the elderly and those with serious pre-existing medical conditions such as heart disease, asthma and diabetes are at an increased risk for a poor outcome.

Because people living in nursing homes and assisted living facilities often fall into both those categories, the challenge of keeping the residents safe during a pandemic is a heavy burden.

Bob Siebel, CEO of Wisconsin Illinois Senior Housing Inc., which owns East Troy Manor, Geneva Lake Manor and Holton Manor in Elkhorn along with 16 other facilities in Wisconsin and Illinois, said it’s a daily struggle to safeguard the health and safety of the residents and staff at the facilities.

“We’re working with multiple challenges,” Siebel said. “One, we have staff living in the community so there is always the possibility that staff could have the virus and now know it and bring it into the nursing home. And we don’t have the ability right now to do screenings of every employee, every day, every shift.

“As we have learned all over the country people can be asymptomatic and still spread the disease,” he continued. “Add to that working with a much higher risk population because people would not be here if not for a medical reason. So we have the age situation as well as underlying medical conditions that make it a venerable population.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control, eight out of 10 deaths reported in the United States have been in adults 65 years old and older. Deaths attributed to COVID-19 range from 11% to 31% for adults age 65 to 85. For adults older than 85, that range jumps to 10% to 27%.

WISH has seen outbreaks at both Geneva Lake Manor and Holton Manor in recent week, and Siebel said he expects to see more cases as testing is ramped up.

“We certainly don’t have enough test right now,” Siebel said. “And we cannot, at this point, even get sufficient tests to test everyone at every facility. The governor has announced he intends to do that for every nursing home resident and staff member and if that, in fact, occurs, we’ll be seeing an increased number of cases because it’s going to ID the asymptomatic people.”

Right now, Siebel said they are faced with the challenge of keeping everything as sanitary as possible, keeping people out of the facilities who don’t need to be there and suspending visitor privileges, and trying to obtain the necessary personal protective equipment to protect the residents and staff.

Finding PPE

While the facilities have the ability to manage the cleanliness and visitors, finding the needed PPE is another huge challenge for WISH and other nursing homes, Siebel said.

“It’s just hard to find the stuff,” he said. “We’ve got three people working full times just on that. And it’s so expensive! Before this started, disposable paper gowns cost us 25 cents a piece. Now they’re $8 and this morning we were just quoted a price of $12. How do you do that?

“I do hope something that comes out of this will be some prosecution for price gouging. Some of this is just disgusting, but you have to have the stuff. You just can’t do without it.”

Keeping moral up

With the stress of the unknown plaguing staff and residents who are under lockdown for their own protection, Siebel said there has been an emotional toll over the last two months.

“It’s been very hard on the staff, they worry about bringing in the virus and exposing the residents. Some of them even stay at local hotels during their time on so they’re not at home and risking bringing the virus to the facility. We work with some amazing people,” Siebel said.

He added that they work with staff who want to stay home, or don’t feel comfortable coming to work and have tried to provide everyone with as much guidance and assistance as possible, even counseling to help deal with the emotional fallout.

“There’s no question there’s a stress level here with this situation, for everyone, and if a staff member needs time off for a family member at home or something like that, we want to help work that out with them,” Siebel said.

Staff also has to fill in the roll of family and support system for the residents with the no visitors policy.

“We’ve been working really had to keep the residents with family if we can,” Siebel said. “We’ve actually applied for a grant to buy more tablets for the residents to use. We’re also having a call with all our activity folk tomorrow for ideas and to share the things each facility is doing to keep moral up.

“The longer this goes on the harder it becomes for the residents and families.”

Sieble said being transparent as possible with families is the key.

“Of course they want to know if their loved ones are OK and we want to reassure them of that,” he said. “The administrators are on the phone with families all the time.”

Siebel added that they are ramping up their response to the emotional side of things “as this drags out.”

“We’re a committed as we can be to doing everything we can to get the residents, families and staff through this,” he said. “The staff has just been astounding. This is my 50th year as a nursing home administrator and this is the kind of thing that keeps me going. To see staff, families and residents fight this together.

“We had one resident, she is 92 years old and she had it and recovered and wanted everyone to know ‘We kicked Covid’s butt!’”

How you can help

For those interested in doing something to help out, Siebel said it was the “little things” that were making the biggest impact.

“For the residents, cards or a small gift shows them people are thinking of them and is a real moral booster,” he said. “And for the staff, someone showed up at Geneva Lake Manor one day with a big box of donuts for the staff and they felt really good about that, that people would be thinking of them at this time and want to treat them.”

Siebel said the community support has been important and appreciated by staff.

“I think the response of the people at virtually every level has been good,” he said. “It’s become a bit trite to say, but it’s true, that we’re all in this together. In dealing with this and dealing with folks who so desperately need us, I think it’s really true, it’s the staff, families and residents who are going to get us out of this, but it’s not going to be without it’s ups and downs. We just need to hang in there together.”


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