Months into the pandemic, long-term care facilities still grappling with COVID-19

McHenry County has 17 nursing homes currently experiencing a COVID-19 outbreak

Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic last March, long-term care facilities in McHenry County have adapted their approaches in an effort to keep residents and staff safe as they learned more about the virus, administrators say.

Bob Norris, the administrator of Sheltered Village, which experienced an outbreak early in the pandemic that left nine people dead, characterized the difference between the start of the pandemic and now as “like night and day.”

Jeremy Rutter, the chief clinical officer of Heritage Ministries, the parent company of Hearthstone Manor in Woodstock, a nursing home that has seen multiple outbreaks, noted that in health care, change is consistent.

“As nursing home and assisted living providers, we’re accustomed to change,” Rutter said. “It takes a little while to make sure we have everything in place, all our policies, all our procedures, but we’re doing well.”

Using personal protective equipment, screening staff before their shift, testing staff twice a week and residents once a week for COVID-19, and cleaning “high-touch” surfaces every four hours has been a huge part of controlling the situation, Rutter said.

Over the summer, Hearthstone Manor got an electrostatic sprayer, which has been able to get into spaces that wouldn’t normally be able to be reached with a wipe, he added.

However, even with changes and improvements made in the wake of COVID-19, nursing homes across the area are still experiencing outbreaks and deaths related to the virus.

McHenry County has 17 nursing homes in the midst of a COVID-19 outbreak as of Jan. 8, meaning they’ve had at least one case in the last 28 days, according to Illinois Department of Public Health data.

Per IDPH data, Alden Terrace of McHenry has seen the most deaths tied to a current COVID-19 at 13 deaths as of Jan. 8, the last time state data was updated, followed by Sunrise of Crystal Lake, which is experiencing its second outbreak and has seen nine deaths, all during this second outbreak, according to IDPH data. Neither nursing home has seen any new deaths in the last week and Alden Terrace has also not seen any additional cases over that period, the data shows.

The Fountains of Crystal Lake and Crystal Pines Rehabilitation & Health Care Center saw McHenry County’s deadliest outbreaks so far, each with 15 deaths. The Fountains of Crystal Lake saw those deaths during its first outbreak, reporting 46 cases. Crystal Pines Rehabilitation & Health Care Center had 86 cases during its outbreak.

Alden Terrace’s administrator could not be reached for comment, and neither could an administrator with Crystal Pines.

A spokeswoman with The Fountains, part of Watermark Retirement Communities, said there are “comprehensive protocols” for mitigating the COVID-19 virus, referencing Watermark’s “Stay Safe. Be Well” program. This program includes, along with other initiatives, community entrance screening, an enhanced cleaning policy, and isolation areas for residents who test positive for COVID-19, and a task force created with health care and senior living experts.

A total of 109 residents and employees live or work at The Fountains at Crystal Lake.

“Our regular testing of every level of care, as well as private duty and third- party caregivers, is reported to the local health department,” spokeswoman Vicki Doyle said in a statement. “Our community leadership works closely with Watermark’s national COVID-19 Task Force to ensure continued testing and limited contact tracing is completed, as well as to ensure that all mitigation safeguards and cleaning processes are in place.”

Meanwhile, no one at Sheltered Village has had symptoms in months, Norris said. Sheltered Village had one outbreak, which ended last year, which resulted in 42 cases and nine deaths.

“It’s just kind of a holding action now,,” he said.

Mostly, he said, it takes being prepared. Sheltered Village meets with health departments and officials weekly.

When COVID-19 first hit, Norris said, like everyone else, employees at Sheltered Village didn’t know much about it.

In the first few months of the pandemic at Sheltered Village, Norris said, they went through a “rough stretch,” Norris said, where staff was retiring, got COVID-19 themselves, or were taking care of their spouses who had it.

But Norris said, in an interview last week, that it had been 10 days since they had one resident test positive with no symptoms.

Hearthstone Manor, too, has been COVID-19 free. It has not had a staff member test positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of December and has not had a resident case since November, Rutter said.

Everything is still locked down regarding visitation, group dining, and activities, though Rutter said Hearthstone is hopeful, moving forward, that this will be loosened somewhat.

“We’ve taken a very proactive approach to COVID,” Rutter said. “One of the benefits of being a national company is we do have a national team of experts in infection control in nursing homes, in senior housing, and we put that COVID team together very early on into the pandemic.”

Melody Living in Lake in the Hills, which currently has about 30 residents, opened in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic in August.

Maria Drosos, its executive director, said with this being the case, the facility was built with COVID-19 in mind.

Though they didn’t experience the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Drosos said she “was able to learn from it and get everybody else’s feedback from it.”

For instance, the nursing home had a visitation room built with a clear barrier between residents and their families and a microphone on each side to ensure no physical contact.

Melody Living also follow all the guidelines put out by the local and state health departments. Drosos said they also test employees and residents weekly. Every hour, an announcement reminds staff to sanitize and clean their stations.

Cassie Buchman

I cover Crystal Lake, Algonquin, Cary, Fox River Grove, Prairie Grove and Oakwood Hills for the Northwest Herald.