Utah’s long-term care facilities slowly loosen their COVID-19 safety rules

Following months of seeing relatives through Plexiglas, residents are getting to see loved ones in person.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Barbara Harding shares a laugh with her mother Jeanette Wilkins, 88, during a visit at The Ridge Cottonwood, a long-term care facility where Wilkins lives, Mar. 24, 2021. Wilkins gets visits from her family members in her room now that the facility is starting to loosen its visitor restrictions.

Jeanette Wilkins has always been a hugger.

“To enter the woman’s house, through the back door, you used to have to hug her,” remembers Barbara Harding, Wilkins’ daughter.

Wilkins’ yearning to embrace her loved ones made it hard for the mother and daughter during the COVID-19 pandemic, Harding said. Her mom has been a resident since fall 2019 at The Ridge Cottonwood Senior Living in Holladay, which closed its doors to visitors last March.

“It was like being so close to somebody, but so far away,” Harding said. “Like you wanted to go into The Ridge and just go up to the room. You go through cycles, where you’re angry about it and then you get sad.”

The Ridge is one of hundreds of long-term care facilities in Utah that were early hotspots during the pandemic — and put their residents in lockdown to try to prevent the virus’s spread among those most vulnerable to COVID-19.

“They couldn’t come out of their own rooms,” Harding said. “My mom would say, ‘You go out of your room, they say, “Get back to your rooms!” Did I say that to you guys [when you were kids]?’”

Of the 2,088 Utahns who have died from COVID-19, as of Thursday, nearly a third — 687 — were residents of long-term care facilities. And, according to the Utah Department of Health’s coronavirus dashboard, 81% of all state-licensed care facilities, 287 out of 352, experienced an outbreak, meaning at least one case of COVID-19 among residents and staff.

Case counts in such facilities now are near their lowest level since the pandemic began. As of Thursday, the weekly average was 1.1 cases per day among residents and staff of long-term care facilities — after a peak seven-day average of 75.3 cases a day back on Dec. 1.

The difference is the vaccine, and the fact that residents and staff of long-term care facilities were on the priority list early — behind health care workers, but on par with teachers and first responders.

According to UDOH survey data, facilities report that 91% of their residents have received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, and 64% have received both doses.

‘It makes a huge difference’

Seniors at The Ridge Cottonwood and its sister facility on Foothill Drive were among the first such centers to receive the vaccine, just after Christmas. Now the vaccine has opened up opportunities for visitors and residents, said Klint Burningham, executive director of The Ridge Cottonwood.

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Barbara Harding holds the hand of her mother Jeanette Wilkins, 88, during a visit at The Ridge Cottonwood, a long-term care facility where Wilkins lives, Mar. 24, 2021. Wilkins gets visits from her family members now that the facility is starting to loosen its visitor restrictions.

Of the 75 or so residents at The Ridge, Burningham said, all but two have consented to get the vaccine. Most have received at least one dose already, and some are fully vaccinated. More will get their shots in the coming weeks.

Six weeks ago, one family member or friend — the phrase Burningham uses is “essential visitor” — could visit at a time, with masks optional for the residents. Two weeks ago, that was expanded to two “essential visitors” at a time.

The residents, Burningham said, “really need that support from their families, to see them. It makes a huge difference.”

The Salt Lake Veterans Home started running vaccination clinics in January, and now 97% of residents and 91% of staff have received their jabs, said Allison Griffiths, a spokeswoman for Avalon Health Care Management, which operates the veterans home.

Following health guidelines, the veterans home has recently reopened to visitors, with both indoor and outdoor visits, Griffiths said. Safety precautions, such as personal protective equipment and hand sanitizer, are still in place, she said.

“We are so happy to see our residents be able to see their loved ones again,” Griffiths said in an email. “Aside from the threat of the virus itself, separation has been the biggest hardship on our residents, but it was absolutely necessary to keep them safe.”

The home’s experience “shows that the vaccines are safe, they are effective and they will help bring this painful period to a close,” Griffiths said. “Our residents hugging their families for the first time in many months is the best evidence you could ask for.”

At The Auberge at Aspen Park, a memory-care facility in the Millcreek area, all of the 50 residents have been vaccinated, said Emma Schilling, the center’s health service director. (Because The Auberge is a memory-care facility, treating residents with dementia, the people who hold power of attorney for each resident must give consent for the vaccinations.)

It took a bit of education, and shooting down misinformation, to convince the staff, Schilling said. When she took a straw poll of employees, she said, “there were very few definitive ‘Yes, I’m all about the vaccine.’ … There were quite a few people that felt like they would get [the vaccine] and then be able to make their household sick from the shot.” Eventually, all but two staffers agreed to be vaccinated.

A fully vaccinated family member can visit at The Auberge with only a few restrictions, Schilling said. “They can’t be just wandering about the building,” she said. But it’s OK to be in the resident’s room, and touch the resident — though visiting family must remain masked.

For guests who aren’t fully vaccinated, The Auberge has a visiting area in an outdoor patio area, with Plexiglas dividers for safety.

Schilling and her staff get updates from the Utah Department of Health twice a week, incorporating the latest guidelines from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Schilling said. Even so, she said, “it’s a big experiment right now.”

That’s how it’s been for the last year, she added. “It’s been flying by the seat of your pants, following the next thing that came out [from health officials], just being on high alert all year,” she said. “I feel about five years older.”

With the end of the pandemic seemingly in sight, Schilling said, “I’d hate for [health officials] to rush it, but it becomes harder and harder to wait. Families read things, they get information, and you’re still telling them, ‘No, you can’t come and see your mom.’ It becomes a tough seat to sit in.”

‘There are no words to put on it’

For most of the last year, Harding was unable to visit her mom, Wilkins, at The Ridge Cottonwood.

Harding, a part-time massage therapist who lives in Park City, said that in the early days of the pandemic, “you could go to the door and you could deliver food, like snacks, to them.”

After a while, The Ridge set up outdoor visiting areas, where residents and family members were separated by Plexiglas, she said. When the weather turned cold, those visiting areas were moved indoors, with 12 feet of space separating them.

Two other factors made the year hard for Wilkins, her daughter said. One is that she has Alzheimer’s disease, which “has really put a veil over a lot of things. Some days she’s clear, some days she’s not.”

The other is that Wilkins’ husband of 69 years, Harding’s dad, Howard Wilkins, died on May 8, at age 89. (Harding said her parents chose The Ridge Cottonwood because it was near their home in Midvale, and because it was one of the few facilities that could provide memory care for Jeanette and still let Howard live with her.)

“She just keeps saying, ‘I really wish he hadn’t left me here. He should have taken me with him,’” Harding said.

Still, Harding added, her mother, at 88, is “a very strong woman. Her father was from Switzerland, her mother was from Germany — and that’s how she raised us. Just really strong stock.”

An odd bit of coincidence has also helped Wilkins, Harding said. Shortly before Howard Wilkins died, the resident next door, Vi Dickman, got a visit from her husband, Dean, who was living at the Salt Lake Veterans Home (but now lives at The Ridge with Vi).

Dean Dickman saw the nameplate for the Wilkinses room, and recognized Howard as his insurance agent for some three decades. The Dickmans befriended Jeanette at The Ridge, Harding said, and have helped keep an eye on her during the pandemic.

In early March, with her mom fully vaccinated, Harding finally got to visit Wilkins in her apartment at The Ridge.

“It’s so nice. It’s almost like there are no words to put on it,” Harding said. “We’re just looking at each other. … She just sits on the couch by you.”

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Barbara Harding holds her favorite photo of her parents Jeanette Wilkins, 88, and Howard Wilkins, 89. Howard Wilkins passed away in May at The Ridge Cottonwood, a long-term care facility. Harding and her extended family are now free to visit Jeanette Wilkins, since the facility is no longer in lockdown due to the coronavirus.