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The discovery that the coronavirus is spreading through three different long-term care communities in Maine has caused new concern among the staff, administrators and residents of similar facilities across the state.
Hearing about the outbreaks has also been crushing for the relatives who are restricted from visiting their loved ones because doing so could invite the very thing they fear.
“I was very alarmed,” Hella Davis said of this week’s news that the infection had reached a Belfast retirement community.
Because of restrictions meant to prevent the virus from spreading, she has not visited her own husband, Cliff, at Winterberry Heights Assisted Living in Bangor for several weeks: “I immediately thought, ‘I’m hoping that this doesn’t happen at Winterberry.’ It’s a great struggle.”
On Tuesday, Tall Pines Retirement and Healthcare Community in Belfast announced that a resident and worker had tested positive for the virus. By Friday afternoon, it had become clear that the virus was far more rampant: a total of 19 residents and 3 workers are now confirmed to have it, according to the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. One of the residents, a woman in her 80s, has died.
Two other ominous developments were also announced Friday.
The Maine CDC said that a separate outbreak of the coronavirus had been reported at an Augusta rehab and nursing facility. Four residents of Augusta Center for Health and Rehabilitation have now tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
And OceanView at Falmouth, a retirement community where the virus first started spreading last month, said its total number of confirmed cases had nearly doubled in the past three weeks. At least one OceanView resident has died from the virus, the Portland Press Herald reported.
The outbreaks show how retirement communities and nursing homes are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, with older people at higher risk for complications living in close quarters. A nursing home in Kirkland, Washington, became the site of one of the first coronavirus outbreaks in the U.S. in February.
Nirav Shah, director of the Maine CDC, has said the state is especially concerned about the threat the virus presents to those communities. A total of 52 people living in congregate settings across Maine — including long-term care — have tested positive for COVID-19, accounting for nearly 9 percent of Maine’s confirmed cases, according to a Maine CDC spokesperson.
State investigators still have not determined how the virus made it into Tall Pines, Shah said on Friday. But from federal research into the outbreaks at other long-term care facilities, he said, “the two most likely candidates are either a visitor, or in some cases, an employee who brought it in, even if that employee or visitor was not showing symptoms.”
“We may never know, but our disease detectives are working on that right now,” he added.
At the same time, Maine CDC is helping those facilities to contain their outbreaks. On Friday, Shah said that it has sent emergency supplies of protective gear to the facilities in Belfast and Augusta to help keep their residents and staff safe.
Now, one of the biggest questions facing similar facilities around the state is whether there will be enough personal protective gear, or PPE — such as face masks, gloves and gowns — to go around if more of them start to see outbreaks.
They have been taking seriously the Maine CDC recommendations that they should restrict nonessential visitors, increase the amount of cleaning and other work they do to prevent the spread of infections, and screen staff for symptoms before they enter the facilities, according to Brenda Gallant, executive director of the state’s long-term care ombudsman program, which oversees nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
“My sense is facilities are doing all of this, but a major barrier for them has been around the PPE,” she said. “We need to make sure they have the equipment they need. If we can do that, that can make a big difference.”
Gallant said that another challenge to taking care of the elderly has been the limited amount of testing that the state has been able to do for COVID-19, but she noted that its capacity to run those tests has been improving — and people showing symptoms who live in congregate care settings such as nursing homes are prioritized for the limited number of tests available.
“I think we have an amazing workforce that is diligently working on this, from administration to direct care workers,” Gallant said. “I commend them. I think providers are very challenged right now, so they need all the support they can get.”
Davis, the Bangor woman whose husband is in assisted living, said that his facility has put in place a series of new restrictions over the last few weeks. First, it limited visitation hours and started serving meals in residents’ rooms instead of in the dining room. Then it put an end to nonessential visits. This week, it made residents remain in their rooms.
While Davis understands the importance of those moves, they’ve stressed the couple. Not only does she miss being able to visit Cliff in person, but it has been costly to pay for direct care workers to pick up some of the work she used to do. Nowadays, they mainly communicate by cell phone.
Hella and Cliff are both in their 80s, and Cliff is in poor health. Given the particular threat that the virus poses to the elderly, Hella Davis also has a more serious concern these days.
“I’m just hoping I see him again,” she said.
Watch: Nirav Shah talks about the situation at Tall Pines