A semblance of normalcy is returning to La Plata County’s nursing homes and assisted living facilities. Residents can join in on bingo, manicures and movies. They can visit with their families.
After a year dominated by isolation during the pandemic, the shift comes as a relief.
Local long-term care facilities felt the toll of COVID-19: Four faced outbreaks of the disease, in which a total of 26 people died. The public health restrictions that locked down long-term care facilities were designed to protect populations vulnerable to severe COVID-19 cases.
As more people get vaccinated, those restrictions are lifting. At nursing homes, vaccination efforts resulted in a 96% decline in COVID-19 cases, as of March, since the peak in December, according to the American Health Care Association.
“We are so relieved. Residents are finally able to see their family members, and that’s made a huge difference,” said Melissa Swanson, administrator of Evenings Porch Assisted Living in Bayfield.
It was a stressful year, she said. During a two-month period, November and December, two residents and four staff members contracted the virus.
Now, all 13 residents are fully vaccinated and so are half the staff members, Swanson said. They take a scenic tour every Wednesday, after seven months of not being able to leave the building or congregate.
Some restrictions remain in place. The state of Colorado, which regulates the facilities, requires weekly testing, face coverings and at-the-door symptom checks for anyone entering a location.
But the state said indoor and outdoor visitation should be available at all times. And if a resident is vaccinated, he or she can choose to have physical contact with guests, Swanson said.
“It’s been a year since we’ve seen our residents be able to hug their children,” she said. “It’s emotional. It’s exciting to see them actually living again. It’s been kind of a sad world for everybody.”
Four Corners Health Care Center in Durango experienced the largest and most tragic outbreak in La Plata County: 147 staff members and residents had COVID-19 and 22 residents died.
As of Friday, 66 of 83 residents and 40 of 115 staff members had been fully vaccinated, said Annaliese Impink, the center’s spokeswoman.
“The medical director at the center is supportive of these efforts and continues to educate residents and staff regarding the importance of getting vaccinated,” Impink said.
Families and friends can visit their loved ones indoors. Residents can get manicures or watch movies in the dining room. They are keeping all COVID-19 processes in place in accordance with state and federal guidance, Impink said.
“Residents are happy to see that the center is able to get back to its normal operations,” she said.
Sunshine Gardens Senior Community in Durango, where three residents died in connection with an outbreak, declined to comment.
Allyn Lewis, whose 94-year-old mother lives at Four Corners, is looking forward to an indoor visit soon.
Her mother chose not to take the vaccine because of health concerns. Instead, the family decided to make sure they were all vaccinated to minimize concerns about spreading the virus.
For now, Lewis still visits with her mother through her window, each holding their phones. She could schedule an in-person visit but hasn’t yet because of scheduling issues.
“I’m cautiously optimistic. I don’t want to rush it, but also I don’t want to wait,” Lewis said. “We’ve gone through a year, I don’t want to mess things up now.”
Many facilities expect more challenges related to the pandemic. Nationally, nursing home occupancy has dropped by 16.5%, from 85.0% in January 2020 to 68.5% in January 2021. More than 1,600 nursing homes could close this year as a result of mounting financial challenges, according to the American Health Care Association.
Swanson said staffing would likely be the facility’s biggest challenge. People are more hesitant about working in health care. The work comes with additional pressures, such as wearing masks for 12 hours and conducting weekly COVID-19 tests for residents, she said.
But she’s hopeful for the future.
“Honestly, I do see a light at the end of the tunnel,” Swanson said. “It’s hard to say, just because we’ve seen a spike (in cases) in the county over this last week. That’s a little nerve-wracking. But I do feel, since they’re vaccinated, I feel a lot safer for my residents.”