Across Minnesota, nursing homes have closed their doors to visitors in all but the most dire circumstances to keep the novel coronavirus away from those most in danger of dying from the respiratory illness. State officials say they have confirmed four cases of COVID-19 in elder care facilities.
Last week, Dean Herzfeld was on the way to visit his 93-year-old mother at her long-term care facility in Oak Park Heights. ”I was on my way to visit her and I stopped for gas, my phone rings and she goes, ‘Don’t come in, they just quarantined us,” he said.
By that he meant, he and his family could not see their mom and grandmother face to face as they used to do.
It was something his wife, who'd spent a career working in long-term care facilities, had expected.
Dean Herzfeld’s mother, Betty Herzfeld, said she's adjusting to the lack of visits, but she understands.
Though she finds the change in routine “a little boring,” she said, Herzfeld makes the best of it by reading through the facility’s library, taking naps, looking out her window and talking on the phone with her four sons and other family members.
Greg Wainman, the director of nursing at Lyngblomsten long-term care facility in St. Paul, said that “the toughest part has been telling families they can’t come see their loved ones.” Wainman spent most of the last week explaining the new rules.
"So, we've also had families say, 'Well then can I just take mom home for a while? And we can all visit at my home and then we can bring her back,'“ Wainman said. “And of course, that kind of defeats the whole idea of trying to contain the spread of this virus by limiting contact."
Lyngblomsten is setting up iPads for virtual visits with their family members or friends. The facility will make exceptions for families when a person clearly is in the last days of their life, but Wainman said that's not always clear.
Long-term care facilities have been screening employees, too. Wainman said Lyngblomsten has closed all access but the main entry. When employees come in, they line up 6 feet apart and a team checks them in.
"They get their temperature checked, they get a respiratory screen, they get checked off, then they immediately wash their hands. There is a restroom by the front door. They have to wash their hands before they can enter further into the building," he said, adding it's a stressful work environment — with workers scared of getting sick or making others sick.
In an industry already short of workers, the pandemic forces nursing home operators to work to balance keeping care up to standards while making sure workers are staying home when they have symptoms.
"Despite our best efforts at recruiting and retaining employees, we've had a net loss for each of the last three years in the number of trained nursing assistants in our state," said Gayle Kvenvold with Leading Age Minnesota, which represents organizations that supply elder care in the state. Her group is asking both the state and federal government for some relaxation of normal rules in order to offer temporarily furloughed workers jobs.
"We're thinking creatively. One of the things that we've done very recently is reach out to the hospitality sector to let them know that we have jobs for individuals who might be displaced by the downturn that there has been in travel and restaurant closures," Kvenvold said.
She said the Legislature passed a $200 million aid package that should help shore up hiring, and help provide child care for long-term care employees.