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Surge of coronavirus cases in Midwest nursing homes leaves loved ones, workers ‘depleted’

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When 38-year-old Chelsea Reed last spoke to her mother — while she was living inside the Rosewalk Village of Indianapolis on the city’s east side earlier this month — Reed said her “proud” mother broke down on the phone, distraught about her fears of dying alone in the long-term care facility.

“She had been calling me in tears, not wanting to die there,” Reed said about her 61-year-old mom, Vanessa. 

She said her mother tested positive for coronavirus on Nov. 17 and was quarantined in a wing reserved for COVID-19 before being transferred to a hospital for care. Reed says her mom is despondent after not being able to hug her family members since August.

“My mom’s very strong, very independent, very kind-hearted,” she said. “When I think about the situation she’s in, it just breaks my heart.”

The family is part of a fast-growing group across the Midwest experiencing personal anguish amid a spike in coronavirus cases within facilities that care for the most vulnerable. Recently, coronavirus cases in nursing homes reached a record 12,000 new weekly cases nationwide the same week Vanessa fell ill.

In a study updated this month, the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living report the Midwest is seeing a spike in coronavirus cases, mostly due to its spread among the general public. Nursing home cases jumped 120% in the region since mid-September.

Text messages shared with Side Effects and the Indianapolis Recorder show cases among Rosewalk residents rose from seven to 44 over a two-week span this month.

Reed said she was first notified about the positive coronavirus test from her mother, not from the facility. She also said long holds on the phone and multiple call transfers are even more painful, considering visiting restrictions bar family members from getting close to isolated loved ones. 

“I feel depleted,” she said after hours spent on the phone trying to get health status updates. “My mom, she’s a firecracker, but if this is how I’m feeling, I’m wondering how my mom’s feeling and what are other residents going through?” 

Rosewalk’s parent company, American Senior Communities, said its facilities have provided alternative methods to keep in touch with family members, such as emails, texts and video chats. But the demand is great, the company said on its website. 

Zach Cattell, president of the Indiana Health Care Association and the Indiana Center for Assisted Living, said COVID-19 has taken a toll on the industry’s workers.

“Folks are worn out. This has been unprecedented,” he said of health care workers. “We have more testing capacity, but we can’t manufacture people.”

He said as community spread has increased, some health care workers are forced to stay home to quarantine, leaving the remaining staff stressed.

“Within long-term care facilities, there are resilient people that care a lot about what they’re doing and they’re going to continue to fight for as long as it takes,” he said. 

The groups represent thousands of nursing homes and assisted living communities across the country, including American Senior Communities, Cattell said. 

He said by law and by best practice, they instruct all facilities to openly communicate with the family member of record, to explain protocols. 

“That gives people a lot of assurance,” he said. 

He also said if there are concerns about care, family members or an appointed legal representative should first talk with the administrator at that facility. 

In an emailed statement a spokesperson for American Senior Communities said it is committed to open communication and comprehensive testing.

“We are deeply saddened whenever a resident or staff member becomes infected, and we grieve for each resident who has passed away. As residents begin to recover, we remain steadfast in protecting and continuing to serve them.

“Rosewalk Village continues to send proactive daily communications to resident representatives about the existence and extent of COVID-19 at the community that adheres to the guidance from the Indiana State Department of Health. We have also made this information available online.”

Lynn Clough, director of the state’s long-term care ombudsman program that advocates for residents, said under federal and state law, residents have the right to communicate with anyone they choose. 

Clough said the ombudsman contact information should be eye-level for all residents in a public space in all nursing home facilities. 

She said the ombudsman serves as an extra set of eyes, now that the Indiana State Department of Health’s annual, unannounced visits to long-term care have been greatly reduced since March. 

“We are still available, we’re just not as visible,” she said. “We do a lot of good.” 

Cattell said his association is calling on Congress to end its partisan deadlock and prioritize vulnerable elderly populations. Most of the $175 billion in federal aid provided by the CARES Act in April has already been distributed. That means long-term care facilities may need more funds for cold and flu season. 

Experts with the Indiana State Department of Health said when a vaccine is available, frontline health care workers in hospitals and long-term care facilities will be first in line to receive it. Until then, Dr. Kristina Box, the state’s health commissioner, said people should continue to wash their hands for at least 20 seconds, wear a mask and stay six feet apart. 

Reed would add compassion and communication to that list. 

“I’m a woman of faith and I understand that you’re doing your best,” Reed said. “But this is someone’s life. We’re all hurting. We all need grace.” 

This story was reported as part of a partnership between WFYI, Side Effects Public Media and the Indianapolis Recorder. Contact Hilary Powell at hpowell@wfyi.org. Follow her on Twitter @mshilary.

For help from the state ombudsman program, you can file a complaint or email the state’s local health department outreach division at familyoutreach@isdh.in.gov.

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