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‘We do the best we can’ — Staff keep local long-term care facilities free of COVID-19 while struggling with residents who miss family visits
CummingHealth&Rehab
Residents at Cumming Health and Rehab sit outside of the building to see their families in person for the first time since March as they drive by in a parade of signs, streamers and balloons. - photo by Sabrina Kerns

Debbie Swanson, director of Cumming Health and Rehab activities, recalled helping one of her residents down to the lobby of the building for her birthday over the summer so that her family could surprise her with gifts, signs and balloons through the windows in the front of the building.  

The woman has issues with her memory in recent years, Swanson said, and she barely ever looks up or speaks. When she finally looked up and out the window that day, she lit up for the first time in months. 

“She looked up and she said, ‘That’s my family!’ ...we were shocked,” Swanson said. “It was just a complete sentence for her. I was so excited for her and her family. You have to be there when those moments happen.” 

Swanson, along with many others working at long-term care facilities during the pandemic, have started to cherish even small, happy moments such as this one as they work restlessly to try to keep residents safe while also trying to fight off the enormous impact that time spent away from friends and family has had on them. 

Many of Forsyth County’s long-term care facilities have been closely following strict restrictions placed on facilities in the state along with Department of Public Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines to ensure the residents, who are much more at risk of contracting serious and life-threatening symptoms from COVID-19, are safe. 

Even as the pandemic first took the world by surprise toward the beginning of the year, local nurses and care staff have been able to do just that. While some facilities recorded some positive cases among residents at the beginning of the pandemic, many facilities have been able to avoid any positive cases since May. 

Cumming Health and Rehab reported that 16 of their residents tested positive earlier this year, and they worked to help care for seven of those residents in-house. By the end of May, all but one of those residents had recovered, and they have had no new positive cases among residents since.  

“We’ve been very fortunate,” Swanson said. “We’re COVID free, and we want to keep it that way.” 

The one other nursing home in Forsyth County, Chestnut Ridge Nursing and Rehab Center, has avoided any positive cases among residents through the entire pandemic. Many other assisted living facilities in the area have been able to do the same, including Oaks at Post Road in Cumming. 

Andrew Greeson, Oaks at Post Road administrator, attributed the lack of positive cases and safety of residents to their staff. 

“Coming into work and having the mindset that I’m going to make sure all of my residents are taken care of no matter what, I feel like our team put that first before anything else, which is a testament to them,” Greeson said. 

Greeson said that they were also able to get ahead of the threat of the pandemic by stepping in early with prevention measures along with education and training for their staff. Facility leaders held virtual meetings with staff members to go over how they can be mindful and keep themselves and others safe in and outside of work, going over the use of face masks and other personal protective equipment, or PPE. 

While facility staff have worked together to successfully keep residents safe, they are also working hard to help their residents emotionally as some are struggling without the company of family and friends. 

“We’ve taken all of these measures to protect our residents, but at the same time, I think we all realize that isolation and not being able to see your family, it’s certainly detrimental,” Greeson said. 

Care staff at many local facilities have been taking the extra time to help set up video calls for  residents, send photos to family members whenever they can, coordinate visits through room windows and find new and creative ways to keep up a connection between residents and their family.  

Swanson has been working at Cumming Health and Rehab to hold new activities including socially-distanced outside barbeques and games, and local restaurants and companies have donated food to the nursing home for the residents to enjoy since they cannot go out for lunch or to out to shop like they usually do. 

“We do the best we can with what we have,” Swanson said. 

Gov. Brian Kemp lifted some restrictions on long-term care facilities on Tuesday, Sept. 15. The order states that facilities will now be allowed to reopen in three phases, depending on area case numbers, access to care and personal protective equipment and more.  

For now, Forsyth County facilities would be under Phase I of reopening, which is the most restrictive. The county’s case count per 100,000 people for the past two weeks is 152, according to Georgia Department of Public Health. That number would have to dip at least below 99 for facilities in the county to be considered for the next phase. 

Under Phase I, most visits into these facilities would not be allowed. 

“We understand that everyone wants to be able to come in and visit their loved ones, but unfortunately this is not proposed in the three phases of reopening,” Cumming Health and Rehab wrote in a statement. “As the facility and Forsyth County’s rates decrease, we will continue to follow the phase guidance for reopening.  We currently encourage families and friends to schedule a video chat with their loved one or come to the facility for a window visit.” 

Meanwhile, family, residents and even staff are hoping for a change in the coming months. Many are tired of waiting to be able see and hug their loved ones again and are waiting on the day facilities can allow visitors again. 

“We’re all ready,” Greeson said.