Shirleen Jordan's voice shook with emotion as she described the devastating toll that the novel coronavirus has taken on St. Therese of New Hope, a large senior community where at least 12 residents have died from the virus since early April.

There have been several times when Jordan, a certified nursing aide at the 258-bed facility, has been among the last people to say goodbye to sickened patients before they were taken away by ambulance.

"It's heartbreaking, absolutely heartbreaking," said Jordan, who has worked at St. Therese for seven years. "You see them up one day and you come back from being off, and they're down and they're gone. And that is so very hard for me."

Jordan and dozens of other health care workers received a moving tribute on Friday as they emerged from their shifts in uniforms and masks. A crowd of about 80 people, including many with loved ones at St. Therese, lined up outside the sprawling complex, where they cheered, applauded and bumped elbows with the workers as they walked to their cars. Some held signs saying, "God bless healthcare workers!" and "Love lives here!" as residents waved from balconies.

Long-term care facilities like St. Therese have been ground zero in the battle against the COVID-19 pandemic, accounting for about 70% of the 221 deaths from the virus statewide. The mounting death toll and shifting guidance on how to care for sickened patients have made an already difficult job even more challenging. Many workers have been overwhelmed by the pressures of caring for older and frail seniors at facilities that were understaffed long before public health officials reported the first case of the coronavirus in early March.

Some workers who gathered Friday outside St. Therese said that at times they have felt underappreciated for putting their own lives at risk. Like other senior facilities across the state, St. Therese has struggled with staffing shortages and the constant need for more protective gear. The facility has had to become more creative, recently ordering 500 rain ponchos to be used as makeshift gowns. Dozens of other staff, including dietitians and therapists, have been retrained to provide direct care to residents.

"The hardest part has been the ever-changing, fluid situation, and not having a lot of science or clinical data to explain what's happening," said Marilyn Ramirez, a nurse at St. Therese. "But the camaraderie — and the way everyone has stepped up to make sure everyone is cared for — has been beautiful."