Samaritas welcomes in-person visitors after year of COVID-19

Vaccinations, protocols allow loved ones to reconnect.
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Samaritas issued weekly updates in letters and emails for residents, as well as virtual town halls to update residents on the situation, but the length of the pandemic eventually took its toll on residents.Courtesy Samaritas

A full year after being separated from their loved ones by COVID-19 and the state’s stay-at-home orders, Samaritas’ senior residents once again are able to see friends and family in-person, and it’s been a long time coming for both residents and staff members.

Beth Covault, executive director for Samaritas, said the organization made COVID-19 parameters for closing each of the three buildings on its main campus, including independent living, assisted living and a nursing home. All three buildings were closed to in-person visits when the pandemic hit, but the state passed down stricter regulations for nursing homes.

“Because it was such an unknown, or new experience for everybody, we tended to lean on what we were doing in the nursing homes … as far as no visitors coming in, routine testing of staff,” Covault said.

Samaritas also put in place COVID-19 questionnaires for vendors and employees coming in and out of the campus, as well as shared best practices with other nursing communities. The main challenge for the organization was monitoring the scenario to conform with ever-changing state regulations, Covault said.

“If any residents were to get COVID, we had special units,” Covault said. “We still have one in the event we need it. We were able to isolate effectively. We also had to focus on any new residents that were coming that would need services or care.”

Nancy Coan, whose husband Bill has been a resident at Samaritas for three years, said Samaritas reacted quickly when the pandemic first hit. She recalled just a year ago when she first heard about the pandemic entering nursing homes on the news, and she emotionally prepared herself for when Samaritas would cut off visitations.

“I told my husband, ‘I think very, very soon they’re going to cut off visitations to protect you,’” Coan said. “Of course, at that time we didn’t know how long this was going to go on, but I prepared him for a day or two ahead of time.”

After Coan hugged her husband goodbye for the last time, the only communication they had with each other was via phone. Although he missed her, she said he understood the severity of the situation.

“I could tell in his voice he was fine. He’s his usual self,” Coan said. “He’s a very calm person … even if he felt anxious, he wouldn’t show it easily, but after 50 years, I know him (laughs).”

While Bill Coan may have fared well in isolation, Covault said many residents suffered from depression brought on by loneliness. Samaritas saw a decline in all of its levels of care, physical care especially, because residents were not able to be out and socializing with the rest of the community.

“We had a lot of residents where, I think, their routines were altered so much – even in our independent living – that having to try to change that so suddenly really showed some deficits people had that we weren’t aware of,” Covault said. “Having a routine – if you’re starting to lose your memory, for example – and having that disrupted is like being thrown a curveball.”

Samaritas issued weekly updates in letters and emails for residents, as well as virtual town halls to update residents on the situation, but the length of the pandemic eventually took its toll on residents, Covault said.

“I think everybody initially was like, ‘OK, yeah, we’ll do what you’d like us to do to be safe,’ but after a couple months it got to be, ‘Oh, man, how long is this going to go on for,’ and that’s when, I think, it started to take its toll,” Covault said.

Nancy Coan said the early days of the pandemic were rough for her, but when the weather was nice, Samaritas did allow window visits, and family members were able to see their loved ones in person in a controlled environment.

Eventually, Samaritas set Bill Coan up on a tablet with Facebook Messenger so he could communicate with his wife via video chat.

“I wasn’t sure he’d be able to manage video chat, but he was actually pretty good at it, so we got to video chat a lot,” Nancy Coan said.

Coan said she and her husband were used to going long periods of time without reliable communication. Back in 1970, when the two were first married, they had only been together for nine months before Bill joined the Navy, so for their first four years of marriage, Nancy would have to wait for her husband to be able to call her when he was in port.

“At least now we have the telephone and the video, so we can see each other,” she said.

The Coans celebrated 50 years of marriage in November 2020, but unfortunately the pandemic dampened their celebration.

“It’s memorable, but it wasn’t the memorable one we were wanting,” Coan said, laughing. “I hope we can celebrate our 51st and make it like the 50th … the last couple of anniversaries, we’d just be inside, and my daughters would bring a nice steak dinner for us, and in the conference room we could have dinner and time together. That was special. You’ve just got to change things up and make the best of what you’ve got.”

Now that Samaritas is allowing in-person visitors again, Coan said she’s happy to see her husband again, as well as the other residents at the nursing home. Before the pandemic, she would come five to six days a week and got well acquainted with staff and residents.

“They just became my friends, and they looked forward to when I’d come in,” Coan said. “They’d get real animated and say, ‘Hi, Nancy!’ … Sometimes if the daughters would come, they’d ask, ‘Where’s Nancy?’ and they’d say, ‘Well, she’s staying home or she’s out with a friend,’ and they’d say, ‘Oh, OK. Apparently, we’re not good enough’ (laughs).”

While Samaritas is allowing in-person visits, it still is enforcing six-foot distance between residents and visitors, but Coan said she’s fully vaccinated and is hopeful for when the organization allows vaccinated visitors to sit with loved ones.

Samaritas had very high vaccination participation once the vaccine was rolled out to nursing home residents in January. Only a handful of residents did not receive the vaccine for medical or personal reasons, Covault said. Vaccinations were issued to assisted and independent living in February, which also saw high turnout.

Now with the majority of residents immunized and able to see their loved ones, Covault said there’s been a significant uptick in positivity on campus among residents and also among staff, who for a year had to fill the role not just of caregivers, but of family and emotional support as well.

“We were concerned, when this first came out, that we would lose staff,” Covault said. “Would they be fearful to come to work in this pandemic? We did not see high turnover due to that. Everybody stepped up to provide for the residents, and that was wonderful, too.”

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