By Dave Ongie, News Editor
It may not have registered immediately with most people in our region, but the news from Kirkland, Washington, on Feb. 29, 2020, was a harbinger of things to come.
The first COVID-19 outbreak inside a nursing home in the United States was reported to the CDC on that day, and the ripple effect did not take long to change day-to-day life in nursing homes and assisted living facilities across the nation. By June, Dr. Holly Berndt – who oversees Holston Medical Group’s Alternative Outreach Services, a program dedicated to connecting with vulnerable patients at their residence in assisted living and skilled nursing facilities – saw drastic measures being put into place to protect older patients from the spread of the novel coronavirus.
“It was really frustrating for our local communities when we started stopping visitation and when we started doing the testing,” Berndt told the News & Neighbor last Wednesday. “The people in our local community didn’t understand it because it wasn’t here yet.”
Berndt recalled that morale was low last summer as staff had to take COVID-19 tests twice a week, family members were no longer able to visit their loved ones in-person and patients were isolated from each other to prevent an outbreak. Unfortunately, the reason for all the precautions became apparent when news of outbreaks in nursing home facilities in our region started to circulate in September.
“It became a great fear, of course, and we started operating in a different way,” Berndt said. “We were wearing full PPE for every patient interaction just to keep the patients protected, to keep us from being asymptomatic spreaders.”
The facilities Berndt was working in were spared until the fateful day at the end of September when one patient tested positive. Berndt was initially puzzled when the initial positive test was called an outbreak, but it soon made sense.
“And then quickly it spread to three patients, then 10 patients, then it just spread like wildfire,” Berndt recalled. “It was really a tough time for all of us because we would have a lot of people who weren’t symptomatic, and then after they tested positive and had it for about a week to 10 days, they would get super sick. We had to send so many people to the hospital. We had a really high death rate in the facility. It was emotionally so difficult for everyone.”
The pandemic’s grip on our region only intensified as fall turned to winter. The holidays were a particularly difficult time as the spread of the virus spiked during the months of November, December and into January. While some patients in nursing homes and assisted living facilities battled COVID-19, others were coping with prolonged isolation and the loss of friends, which exacted a high emotional toll. At one facility Berndt works in, nearly 20 percent of the patient population was lost to COVID-19.
“In addition to seeing people die because of COVID, I have seen declines simply because of isolation,” Berndt said. “I have continued to see it take a great toll. A lot of family members are just now allowed to do some visitation in certain environments. Whenever they’re finally able to see their loved ones, they see a huge difference. They don’t interact as well. They’ve lost weight, and dementia signs and symptoms will certainly progress in this type of environment.”
Berndt said that staff members inside nursing homes and assisted living facilities have gone the extra mile to help patients combat the isolation they have dealt with throughout the pandemic. Activities directors did the best they could to foster community through organizing socially distanced bingo games, creating safe outdoor events and bringing activities to the patients during the darkest days of the pandemic.
“People working in the nursing homes made every effort to reach out to these patients and make them feel loved on, made them feel encouraged,” Berndt said, adding that HMG collected gifts to be distributed to patients during the holiday season.
They say it’s always darkest before the dawn, and that was Berndt’s experience. The first emergency use authorization for a COVID-19 vaccination was issued in the United States on Dec. 11, 2020, right as the spread of the pandemic was reaching critical mass in our region. When the vaccine finally became available in the nursing homes Berndt works in, she called it the first glimmer of hope she had seen since the crisis began.
“Once we had the first vaccine clinic, one of my buildings had over 90 percent of the residents who agreed to get the vaccine, and we had at least 80 percent in the other building,” Berndt said. “When that happened, I had my first glimmer of hope. Now that a majority of our residents are vaccinated and a good majority of the staff has been fully vaccinated, they are opening up the facilities to in-person visitation.”
Berndt believes the loss of life witnessed in the past year was the prime motivator for the people she cares for on a day-to-day basis to get the vaccine, and that is why she made the personal decision to put aside her doubts and questions and get vaccinated as soon as she had the chance.
“That’s the hope that we’ve got right now,” Berndt said.