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COVID-19 takes toll on nursing homes

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Thanksgiving cases expected to appear in coming weeks

By Mira Brody EBS STAFF

BOZEMAN – Among others in the state, assisted living facilities in Gallatin County have been suffering the effects of the coronavirus, both in case and death counts as well as psychosocially, according to the emotional testimony of a rest home administrator at a Dec. 4 Gallatin City-County Health Department press conference.    

The Gallatin Rest Home in Bozeman, like most assisted living facilities in the county, has been on lockdown since March 15 in an effort to keep COVID-19 away from the community’s most vulnerable residents. They experienced their first positive case, a staff member, on Oct. 26 and first positive resident case Nov. 22. 

They were fortunate for so long mostly due to the diligence of their staff, says the rest home’s administrator, Darcel Vaugh, but widespread community spread, as is being experienced by Gallatin County right now, directly affects those in those facilities, no matter how hard they work.

Since March, the county assisted living facilities have had a total of 158 cases among residents, 136 among staff and a total of 17 deaths. Although these numbers are important, Vaugh says it’s the psychosocial affects of the pandemic that bears the highest burden.

 “With the lockdown it’s our staff basically that are doing the one-to-one visits,” she said. “We’re doing Zoom visits with family, when we’re able we do window visits. But you have to think of what it would be like to not be able to hug or kiss your husband, wife your daughter your son, for nine months.”

Vaugh takes long pauses between her statements, holding back the onslaught of emotions many frontline workers feel at this stage, nine months into a relentless pandemic.

“I know that there are those people that don’t believe this is an issue,” she said. “They don’t believe that they should be told by the government what they should or should not be doing. I understand that. But if you can’t wear a mask and keep your social distance to do the right thing for yourself, could you please do it for our elderly that are in facilities that are locked down and this could be the last Christmas for quite a few of our residents.”

As of Dec. 4, there are currently 518 active cases of COVID-19 in the county, 15 current hospitalizations and 50 new cases from Dec. 3. Health Officer Matt Kelley said that there was an uptick in tests conducted prior to Thanksgiving as people prepared to travel, but no tests were conducted on Thanksgiving Day. Positive cases as a result of holiday travel and gatherings will likely show in test data in the coming week.

“I think maybe the most promising thing that we’re seeing [is] the number of people hospitalized ever so slightly edge downward,” Kelley said.

Kelley noted that the Health Department is preparing for the arrival the COVID-19 vaccine, which is expected to arrive in Montana the coming week and will first be available to healthcare workers and residents of assisted living facilities. The hope is to have general public availability in spring of 2021. The county is also responding to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention changing the COVID-19 quarantine period from 14 days to 10 days, which is effective immediately.

Following protests at Kelley’s home, well-wishers gathered on Main Street yesterday, holding up signs of gratitude on his way home. Kelley said while helpful, he notes that he is a very small part in the fight against this pandemic, offering appreciation toward his staff and frontline workers such as Vaugh.

“Every day I work with dozens of committed and trained professionals, nurses, registered sanitarians, admin folks, people at the hospital, people at emergency services working their hearts out for this community,” Kelley said. “I think what we can do to really pay honor to that work that those people are doing is to … please  try to make decisions to avoid that contact with people where you can, [and] find new and imaginative ways to keep the virus at bay.”

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