Update: Ten residents and three staff members at Tall Pines Retirement and Health Care Community have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Thursday. Read the latest story here.
Click here for the latest coronavirus news, which the BDN has made free for the public. You can support our critical reporting on the coronavirus by purchasing a digital subscription or donating directly to the newsroom.
BELFAST, Maine — Overnight, a Belfast retirement community became a focus of concern after a resident at Tall Pines Retirement and Healthcare Community died and three others there tested positive for the novel coronavirus.
“It’s a very challenging time. We’re still very much at the beginning of all of this,” said Matt Griswold, executive director of Tall Pines, which has 64 residents in two facilities. “We were in major, major precaution mode for weeks. What’s so frustrating is that [the virus] is just like a machine. It’s uncompromising. It’s non-negotiable.”
Until Tuesday morning, Griswold said the community was hopeful that the virus wouldn’t spread there after administrators took precautionary steps that included weeks of restricting all visitors.
But things changed suddenly, he said. By Wednesday, a woman in her 80s who was a resident of the long-term care facility had died at Waldo County General Hospital in Belfast after becoming ill from COVID-19.
The death of the woman, who has not been identified, is believed to be the first related to coronavirus in the midcoast county, and was counted in the Wednesday update by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. As of then, there were 537 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus in the state. Seven were in Waldo County.
The statewide death toll from the virus stands at 14.
On Tuesday afternoon, Tall Pines posted on its Facebook page that both a resident and a worker there had tested positive and that administrators were working with state officials to test “higher-risk residents” for the virus.
Three other residents in the community’s long-term care facility tested positive, Griswold confirmed Wednesday.
“We are continuing to do everything we can to reduce the spread — staying on top of things, doing precautionary measures, and doing a great job with isolation,” Griswold said. “The staff here are amazing. It’s going to be a tough battle. It’s a very tough virus to contain.”
Retirement communities and nursing homes have been especially vulnerable to coronavirus outbreaks, and most have closed to outside visitors. Older people are at higher risk for developing serious complications from coronavirus infections, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
In Maine, the coronavirus has spread through at least one other senior living community. At least six cases of it have been reported at OceanView at Falmouth. Nationally, the virus rampaged through Life Care Center, a nursing home in Kirkland, Washington. At least 37 people linked to the nursing home died of the disease.
Dale Rowley, the head of Waldo County Emergency Management Agency, said Wednesday he had reached out to Maine CDC and Maine Emergency Management Agency for guidance, but had not yet heard back from officials there.
“I’m looking for any lessons learned from the other nursing homes. Are there any plans they can provide? Can [the state] provide manpower?” he said.
At Tall Pines, Griswold said that keeping the families of the residents apprised of the situation has been a top priority. But hearing the news has still been hard for those relatives.
Kate Hall of Northport said Tuesday that she had just been feeling lucky because she didn’t know anybody who had tested positive for the new coronavirus. But a few hours later, she learned that her uncle, who lives at Tall Pines and has advanced Alzheimer’s disease, was not feeling well.
“My uncle has come down sick. He’s got a high fever and a cough,” she said, adding that he was getting tested for the coronavirus. “It’s so sad. He can’t even communicate how he’s feeling. We all have to make super hard decisions right now, and it’s not something that we’ve ever been faced with.”
Messages sent to Hall on Wednesday to ask about her uncle’s condition were not immediately returned.
Griswold said it isn’t clear how the virus initially spread into the facility.
When staff members arrive at work, there is an intensive screening process, he said, and they are not allowed through the door without answering questions from a questionnaire developed by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. They also get their temperature taken.
“If they have even a hint of symptoms, we don’t let them in,” Griswold said.
“Symptoms aren’t always going to present in time,” he said.
And while visitors have been restricted from the community, staff members come and go regularly to provide care and services, and residents also leave for hospital visits, as needed.
“Those are kind of your more concerning areas of possible exposure,” he said.
While the sudden onslaught of the coronavirus at Tall Pines has been challenging, Griswold said, there are glimmers of hope. A worker who tested positive is doing well now, he said. Staff members there also have come together during this crisis.
“These are very challenging and trying times here at Tall Pines. As challenging and difficult as they are, the compassion and courage that I have seen from my people here is [amazing.],” he said. “In a dark time, my heart is very lightened by the support that I’m seeing.”
Watch: Nirav Shah on risk