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As the spread of COVID-19 worsens in Illinois, nursing homes and assisted living facilities across McHenry County are prohibiting all visitors and monitoring the health of residents and staff constantly for signs of the virus, according to staff.

Last week, the Director of the Illinois Department of Public Health, Dr. Ngozi Ezike, announced an outbreak of the coronavirus in a long-term care facility in DuPage County, Chateau Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, where the virus quickly spread to infect 30 residents and 12 staff.

“Residents in nursing homes are our most vulnerable population and we are doing everything we can to protect them,” Ezike said.

“We may see cases in other long-term care facilities, which is why it is so important that we all do our part to reduce possible exposure in the community to those who go in and out of these facilities as they provide care to residents.”

Since then, the IDPH has recommended that long-term care facilities restrict all visitors, with exceptions made only for “end of life” visits.

The IDPH also advised that facilities cancel group activities and group dining and that they implement daily screening of residents and staff for symptoms associated with the virus.

While this announcement may be frightening for McHenry County residents who are used to visiting loved ones in nursing homes regularly, Nursing Home Administrator Thomas Annarella said that residents are in good hands.

At Valley Hi Nursing Home in Woodstock, “we actually closed our doors to visitors before the state IDPH guidelines,” Annarella said. “We’re now encouraging visits by Skype and FaceTime.”

Valley Hi is supporting residents in using these technologies as part of its daily programming, Activity Director Linda Barrett said.

“We have iPads and Chromebooks available and we talk them through how to do it,” she said.

Video calls allow family members to spread cheer to their loved ones without putting their safety at risk, Barrett said.

“Being able just to see their faces is all that they need sometimes,” she said.

Executive Director for Hearthstone Communities, Jeremy Rutter, said they are also allowing “e-visits” via Skype or FaceTime as well as occasionally allowing family members on the grounds to wave at their relatives through the window.

“We’re doing all that we can do to keep our residents safe and understand how difficult it is for families and loved ones not to be able to visit,” Rutter said.

“I want people to know that their loved ones are taken care of,” he added. “We have an amazing staff in place that are our frontline heroes out here doing amazing, amazing work and I am very proud of them.”

Hearthstone Communities has housing options for independent living and assisted living as well as a skilled nursing care facility called Hearthstone Manor, Rutter said.

Hearthstone is now conducting regular screening of residents and staff for respiratory symptoms in addition to requiring that temperatures be taken daily, he said.

According to a news release, as the IDPH continues to ramp up its COVID-19 testing abilities, the department “will prioritize testing for our most vulnerable populations, such as those who work or live in nursing homes.”

Before each shift, Valley Hi staff are required to take their temperature and complete a form which asks about their potential exposure level to the virus, Annarella said.

“If they don’t pass the screening for any one of the reasons on the sheet or for their temperature, we send them home and then just kind of reevaluate at the next shift,” he said.

Valley Hi Nursing Home is now hiring for a variety of positions to ensure the facility will be fully staffed in the event that any of its workers contract the virus, Annarella said.

“We would love to have more staff added in to help kind of ease the burden on the ones that are working really hard right now,” he said.

David Smeltzer, President and CEO of Heritage Ministries, Hearthstone’s parent company, said that Hearthstone Communities is hiring as well.

“We know there are a lot of people that are out of work right now,” Smeltzer said. “If they would rather work than collect unemployment, we have jobs... from housekeepers and dietary workers to laundry folks to maintenance.”

Aside from needing more personnel, Smeltzer said his biggest concern if an outbreak were to occur at a long-term care facility would be sourcing enough personal protective equipment (PPE).

“We tried to order up but the shortages that you hear about are true and that is the biggest concern that we have right now is making sure that we have enough PPE for our staff,” Smeltzer said.

With no known cases of COVID-19 in any of the long-term care facilities in McHenry County, gowns and other PPE aren’t currently needed. But Hearthstone Communities is requiring that staff use surgical masks when interacting with patients with any kind of respiratory symptoms, Rutter said.

As a creative solution to a nationwide supply chain issue, Rutter said he reached out to a friend at Mac Automation in Woodstock to see if the company could use its industrial sewing capabilities to make cloth mask covers for surgical masks.

“This is an idea that’s been kind of floated around the long-term care community and the healthcare community in general where people are utilizing a cloth mask cover to cover their surgical mask and then it extends the life of it,” he said.

On Tuesday, Mac Automation produced a prototype of the cloth masks for Hearthstone which Rutter said worked like a charm.

“Last resort, as we’re all seeing a shortage in surgical masks, is to have some cloth masks created so that, God forbid, the day comes that we actually run out of regular manufactured surgical masks, then we’ll have a back-up of cloth masks,” he said.

“And that is within guidelines with the CDC, they are OK with that as a last resort,” he added.

If community members would like to aid in this effort by sewing cloth masks at home, Rutter said templates and detailed instructions are available at deaconess.com/masks.

In an effort to help neighboring long-term care facilities prepare for the spread of COVID-19, Annarella said he and his team have created a four-part plan on how to respond to the pandemic as it continues to worsen.

The plan is available on the county’s COVID-19 webpage for long-term care providers where it is marked as “Tom’s Plan,” he said.

“It spans from locking the doors as part of our initial response all the way up to if we had to lock the building down where no staff left and we were running 12 hour shifts with the same team staying over for the duration of 10 or 14 days,” he said.

For now, Annarella said nursing home staff are doing everything they can to protect residents and will continue to monitor the situation closely.

Although Hearthstone Manor has cancelled all group activities and congregate dining, Rutter said staff has come up with innovative ways to keep residents engaged while adhering to social distancing guidelines.

One such idea was to have residents play “hallway bingo” from the doorways of their rooms, he said. “We’re doing a lot of just trying to give people a little extra love because this is a difficult thing to go through.”

Over at Valley Hi, staff are working to offer activities in smaller groups, like manicures and virtual church services, to maintain normalcy for residents while also avoiding large gatherings, Barrett said.

“The staff show us, as residents, that this is a family and that they want to make things as easy as possible,” Valley Hi resident, Charlene Vandekreke, said.

The nursing home recently had to cancel its annual Easter egg hunt where over 100 local kids come to the home to search for eggs, Barrett said.

“Instead of coming to visit, they have been making us pictures and things that we can hang up,” she said.

This spurred Barrett to put out a call on Facebook asking local kids to send cards and drawings to cheer up Valley Hi residents, which she said got a wonderful response from the community.

Vandekreke said she appreciates how dedicated Valley Hi has been in preventing the spread of the virus while still being considerate of residents' emotional needs.

“They thought of everything...and for people that are having any problems, they’re right there to talk to them and to reassure them,” she said.

“We are family,” Barrett said. “We’re taking care of them and we’re using as much precaution as we possibly can.”

Instead of hugging, “we’re throwing kisses now,” Vandekreke added.

Coronavirus