Melanie Van Wyhe of Stillwater kept count of the days that COVID-19 visitor restrictions kept her from hugging her mom, Margaret, who resides at a long-term care center. The tally: a heartbreaking 126.
The anguish from the long wait could still be heard in Van Wyhe's voice as she shared her family's story during a recent Minnesota Health Department conference call. It's no wonder. While coping with the pandemic has been challenging for all, seniors and their families had to endure long months where the only safe contact was through a window, a phone or videoconferencing.
Visitation policies eased this summer, with outdoor and some indoor visits now possible. But a worrisome resurgence of cases in long-term settings, both among residents and staff, have state health officials and caregivers concerned.
The virus doesn't magically appear in senior care settings. Instead, its presence reflects its spread in the community, where staff and family visitors live. And that's why all of us play a role in preventing the Van Wyhes and others from having to endure long separations again.
Social distancing, wearing masks, vigorous hand-washing and other hygiene practices are easy but important measures that can contain the virus. Getting it under control outside elder care settings helps stop it from getting inside them, which is why state long-term care providers should be heeded as they ask everyone to take these precautions.
"We have to rely on society to help us with social distancing and masking and not putting themselves in precarious situations," said Erin Hilligan, vice president of operations for Ebenezer, the senior housing arm of Fairview Health Services.
To those who still have misgivings about masks or other measures, "Think about the vulnerable population, their caregivers and their visitors and know that you're serving them," said Nathan Johnson, CEO of PioneerCare in Fergus Falls.
The plea to protect elders comes as COVID-19 cases increase in long-term care settings, an alarming development because older people are far more likely to develop severe symptoms or die.
According to a recent Star Tribune analysis, the "weekly number of new infections among residents has nearly tripled" since early July. The analysis also found cases on the rise among long-term care employees.
PioneerCare and its 300 employees serve 230 residents at its Fergus Falls and Breckenridge, Minn., locations. It experienced its first COVID cases in the past month, with one resident and three staff members testing positive.
Follow-up investigations indicate that the cases were "community acquired," Johnson said, meaning exposure happened outside the facilities. In one case, there was an outbreak in the town where the employee lived.
Johnson noted another troubling finding: All four were asymptomatic when tested. That underscores the need for masks, hygiene and avoiding gatherings. People can be infectious before they know they're sick.
Hilligan, of Ebenezer, which serves about 10,000 residents, said it's been painful to watch cases rise in people in their 20s. As a mom of teenagers, she understands their need to be with friends. At the same time, she said, young people may fail to understand the connection between their lives and seniors' health, even elders they don't know.
Long-term care staff have done "amazing work," but they need their community's help to stop this virus, Hilligan said, adding that anyone can be a COVID carrier. "We all need to do our part and be smart."