Vaccinations bring more visitors, greater freedom at Heritage

RESIDENTS AT HERITAGE Senior Living were able to continue socializing with one another except when the facility was in quarantine after a small COVID-19 outbreak in January. Among the activities they enjoyed was Bingo.

Becky Brown, manager at Heritage Senior Living, admits she's as protective as a mother hen when it comes to the residents at the Madison assisted living facility. Her efforts -- and those of her staff -- paid off.

"We went all the way into January with no COVID cases," she said.

Ironically, the day after the second round of vaccinations was administered, three residents tested positive.

"We had a handful of people in January, which was so frustrating," Brown indicated.

As a result, the residents were required to quarantine. During that time, for the first time since the facility was locked down in response to guidelines provided by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), residents were confined to their rooms and unable to socialize with one another.

During the intervening months, while remaining vigilant, Brown worked to provide residents with as much normalcy and freedom as possible. They continued to gather for meals and for activities such as Bingo. However, she recognized they would have appreciated spending time with others as well.

"They love us and love each other, but we're not their families," Brown noted.

Consequently, as soon as guidelines were eased, visits were allowed. As a first step, Brown had a Plexiglass barrier constructed in the dining room, which the CMS recommended in its September 2020 memorandum.

"It was still a no-contact situation, but it was better than talking through the window or on the telephone," Brown said.

After the quarantine, visitation at Heritage resumed. Because 100% of the staff and residents were vaccinated, the facility guidelines were changed and mirrored the official revisions released by the CMS a month later.

The CMS had recommended allowing more visitors as long as more than 70% of residents and staff were vaccinated and the positivity rate in a county remained below 10%. Screenings, face coverings, social distancing and hand sanitizer were still recommended. To keep residents safe, the CMS also indicated the number of visitors in a facility and visitor movement could be limited.

Following the quarantine, Heritage began to allow residents to have up to two visitors in their rooms at any given time, but visitors are required to wear face coverings. In addition, antigen tests, a form of rapid testing, are administered when visitors arrive.

"We use them to test all visitors who come into the building," Brown said.

She described the shift from visiting in the dining room to visiting in rooms as a "game changer." Too, the removal of the Plexiglass barrier made a difference.

With the revised guidance from the CMS, touch is allowed if the resident is fully vaccinated and wearing a face covering. The memorandum states, "there is no substitute for physical contact, such as the warm embrace between a resident and their loved one."

Brown was cognizant of this when changes were implemented earlier this year.

"I don't say, `No hugging,' but I do say, `Minimize physical contact'," she said. Social distancing is still emphasized.

When the positivity rate in the county is low, additional freedoms are also allowed. Currently, according to the state Department of Health website, the positivity rate in Lake County is considered substantial at 18%. As of Saturday, there were 42 active cases.

When the positivity rate is minimal, residents can leave the facility to go for a drive or to attend family gatherings of fewer than five people. However, they are not allowed to dine in a restaurant or enter public spaces such as stores or churches where they will encounter a larger number of individuals.

Brown has noticed that as a result of these changes, she hears more laughter in the lobby. Staff morale has also improved.

"It's been nice for us as well to interact with visitors," she explained, noting it's better than being the naysayer, even if precautions were necessary to keep residents safe.

As the pandemic's grip eases and the residents face fewer threats from the life-threatening virus, Brown has felt blessed that her staff has been committed to resident safety, even when it was difficult.

"Everybody has bought in from the start," Brown said. "We all made sacrifices to keep our residents safe."