BELFAST, Maine — Every day, Debbie Murphy of Belfast worries this might be the day she gets the news that she doesn’t want to hear.
Her 85-year-old mother, Marlene Gordon, lives at the Commons at Tall Pines, which is in the throes of a coronavirus outbreak. On April 9, Debbie learned that Gordon is among the 28 residents and 10 staffers there who have tested positive.
Now, all she can do is worry — and wait.
“We are realizing that we may never hug her or see her face-to-face, ever,” her husband, Tom Murphy said Thursday. “Every day we wake up, we’re wondering, is this the day? Every day we hear there’s another death there, we wonder, is it her? It’s a terrible thing.”
There are 64 residents in two facilities at the Tall Pines complex and as of Friday, five residents have died of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, according to Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention Director Nirav Shah. So far, the virus seems to have been contained to the Commons, the complex’s skilled nursing facility. The Residence at Tall Pines, the other facility in the complex, has not had any positive cases identified.
Charndra Michaud, the resident services director at Tall Pines, said Friday that it is very hard to be at the eye of the COVID-19 storm.
“Our people come to us because they think they’re going to be safer and healthier here. It’s the one time we can’t offer that,” she said. “It’s a horrible feeling. It’s something that none of us, in their wildest imagination, felt could happen.”
Before anyone knew that the virus was in the building, she said, some residents liked to go from wing to wing and be social. As soon as they had a positive case, that practice was stopped, but it was too late. The virus had spread.
“The problem that we face is that we have people who are absolutely the most vulnerable to this disease,” she said. “We are literally taking every step we possibly can. COVID-19 doesn’t care about anything. It is undetectable until it’s too late.”
The disease can move very fast, she said. On Thursday, when it became clear that one resident was dying, the nursing director was able to reach out to the family, who gathered outside of her window and said their goodbyes that way because they can’t enter the building.
“It’s heartbreaking,” she said. “That’s unfortunately the best we can offer to people right now.”
Tall Pines isn’t the only long-term care and rehabilitation facility in Maine to be affected by the coronavirus. Group-living environments have been particularly hard hit by the virus. As of Friday, the CDC confirmed:
— 46 of 63 residents and 24 staff members have confirmed cases, along with two deaths, at Augusta Center for Health and Rehabilitation;
— seven cases among residents and three among staff members at the assisted-living facility at The Cedars retirement community in Portland;
— 28 confirmed cases in residents and 14 in staff members, along with two deaths, at Maine Veterans’ Homes facility in Scarborough;
— four cases, including three residents and one staff member, at Falmouth by the Sea;
— at least 11 cases at OceanView at Falmouth, which was the site of some of Maine’s first confirmed cases of the coronavirus.
The growing numbers of COVID-19 patients linked to these types of facilities is alarming for Mainers.
Debbie Murphy’s mother moved to Tall Pines in Belfast three years ago, but in the past year her physical condition has deteriorated. Gordon went from being able to walk, to using crutches, to relying on a walker, to being confined to a wheelchair. Now she’s not very mobile at all. After Tall Pines shut its doors to visitors weeks ago in an effort to keep the virus from getting in, the Murphys were only able to visit Gordon by standing outside her window and trying to communicate from a distance.
“Our visits to mom are very sad now, standing on a snowbank for a window visit,” Debbie Murphy wrote. “She’s confused, and I’m sure she is wondering why we are not in there holding her hand. It’s horrible for all of us.”
When Gordon tested positive, her only symptom was a small cough. Now, she seems to have none of the classic COVID-19 symptoms, other than sleeping a lot and having no appetite. The Murphys are hoping for the best — that Gordon will recover and they will see her and hug her again. But even if she does, her world will have changed painfully.
“Her good friend, one of the few people she could communicate with, died there recently [of the disease],” Debbie Murphy said. “Even if she gets better, it will all change inside. She won’t know the people. She’ll be confused.”
Still, the Murphys have only positive things to say about the level of care that Gordon has received.
“Right now they are under-staffed — staff members are testing positive, too — so it’s hard to pull away the nurses for phone updates,” Debbie Murphy said. “But they are very good about returning calls and keeping the family in the loop. And the staff there are heroes, taking special care of the residents close-up. One staff aide was feeding my mom, who has little appetite, so we are very appreciative of them and aware of how difficult and scary this simple task can be.”
Belfast City Councilor Mike Hurley, whose grandmother lived at Tall Pines after it became clear she could no longer live independently, said that he also has a lot of appreciation for the staff at the facility.
“These are our grandparents, our moms, our dads, our aunts and uncles” living at Tall Pines, he said. “The people who work there live in the community, too … you’re working in the kitchens at Tall Pines, you’re not making $30 an hour. These are not highly-paid jobs. These people are risking their lives, for all of us, for our community, and they’re doing it for low wages. That’s bravery. A lot of people would hang up their jackets and say, ‘Sorry, I can’t do this.’”
Michaud said that although Tall Pines has lost staff — either because some were afraid to come in or because they have tested positive — the people who have remained are “amazing.”
Waldo County General Hospital has sent some of its employees to Tall Pines, and staffing agencies have helped to fill in the gaps. The people who are working there now are getting a higher pay rate than normal.
“Hazardous duty pay, is how one person referred to it. It’s what it feels like,” Michaud said. “Our staff members — what we’ve discovered is that heroism leaves no room for anything else. They get up every day and have a smile. You can’t see the smile because of the mask, but they’re bringing happiness. They’re bringing comfort to these residents.”