Only one day remained in a mandatory 28-day quarantine period at Woodstock’s Sheltered Village facility for people with developmental disabilities after a deadly outbreak of COVID-19.
It was May 26.
Lauren Schlendorf, the facility’s business manager, sent an email, obtained by the Northwest Herald in a public records request, telling public health officials she was happy the long lockdown was almost over, but she ended the message saying she was “feeling discouraged.”
That’s because she was asking whether the four-week lockdown would have to restart at Day 1 because an employee received a positive test result for the coronavirus in the days leading up to what would have been the end of its initial period of keeping residents as isolated as possible.
The answer to her question was yes, said Bob Norris, administrator of Sheltered Village.
The 28-day countdown would reset, and group programming or visitation would remain on hold until the facility saw a full quarantine period of no new COVID-19 cases among residents or staff – something it still hasn’t seen more than eight months later.
The quarantine represented an effort by public health officials to ensure containment of the outbreak at Sheltered Village that began in the weeks before Schlendrof’s disheartened email. A total of eight residents and one staff member have died since the outbreak began.
It was not the last time the facility encountered the disappointment of nearing the completion of a four-week period with no new cases among anyone living or working inside it only to have to start over because of a positive result.
Outside of a little more than two weeks starting in September, when some regular daytime programming temporarily had resumed, Sheltered Village has been in an active lockdown status since it first entered the restrictive environment last year, said Norris, a 71-year-old who was hospitalized himself with the virus for 11 days in April during the outbreak.
The facility still is in active outbreak designation, Norris said Thursday, and will be until Feb. 21 at the earliest. The Illinois Department of Public Health incorrectly has the outbreak labeled as closed on its data portal, Norris said.
But Sheltered Village has seen no hospitalizations because of COVID-19 since early May and no deaths since April, he said.
“We’re just stuck,” Norris said.
Residents and staff members at Sheltered Village have started to receive doses of the COVID-19 vaccine available in McHenry County, and the end is in sight but not guaranteed, he said. Once the facility hits the 28-day benchmark, Norris said, it has to go another 14 without any new cases before requesting to move into a less restrictive tier of state and federal safety precautions for long-term care facilities meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
“With everything going on, we have to be awfully careful,” he said. “We went through way too much hell.”
Sheltered Village is not the only long-term care facility in McHenry County to struggle with the criteria that must be met to relax rules implemented because of the pandemic. According to state health department data for long-term care settings, there were 10 facilities in the county shown to have an active COVID-19 outbreak on Dec. 25 that also were considered to have an active outbreak Feb. 5, the last time the state updated its data.
“It’s difficult as heck to get out of it because 28 days is a long time,” said Thomas Annarella, administrator of the McHenry County-run Valley Hi Nursing Home in Woodstock, which is among those shown to have had an active outbreak on both dates.
Like other nursing home industry leaders, Annarella questions whether the benefits of measures to almost entirely isolate people to tame the risk of serious complications or death from COVID-19 is worth the adverse effects on the mental and physical health of those in long-term care that could be related to lockdowns.
“We’re looking at possibly clearing our [28-day period] in two weeks. But I hesitate to even say that out loud because all it takes is one case to go back,” Annarella said, adding that he feels “the approach is draconian in its way.”
“You’re locking people in their rooms. I would question whether the benefit outweighs the risk, the way the lockdowns are being required,” he said.
Long-term care across the U.S. has seen an increase in falls, depression and other ill health effects Annarella said he believes are linked to the measures meant to slow the pandemic.
He said he also disagrees with the state health department’s data collection methods and, in particular, its death count related to the Valley Hi outbreak.
As of Jan. 1, the Illinois Department of Public Health reported three deaths as part of the Valley Hi outbreak, which began in December only a week before the facility was set to receive its first batch of vaccines. Annarella told the Northwest Herald at the time that the count had risen to four.
Now state health department data shows 64 cases and 12 deaths, with Annarella and McHenry County Coroner Michael Rein offering conflicting accounts of the death total.
“We have five,” Rein said Thursday of his office’s count of COVID-19 deaths at Valley Hi.
Annarella thinks the number may be lower than that.
“I would argue we’ve only had one death related to COVID-19. We’ve had 11 other deaths with COVID-19,” Annarella said. “If someone is 105 years old on hospice and end-of-life care and dies 20-something days after being diagnosed, does that count as a COVID-19 death? I’m not making that up. We’ve had others that died 20-something days after their diagnosis; they stopped having symptoms of COVID multiple weeks prior to that.”
Those deaths were counted by the state, he said.
Residents have emptied out of the facility over the last two months, too, Annarella said, opting for other living situations and leaving dozens of vacancies at Valley Hi.
“The other side of the complexity of it is how many people have chosen over the last year to not go into a long-term facility when they really needed that care just because their family members couldn’t come and visit them? There is no way of knowing that number,” he said.
Norris, however, believes the state and federal restrictions on nursing homes and society at large have been necessary, preferring more stringent rules than less at this point.
“To be honest with you, from what we’ve gone through, I would much rather they be more restrictive than less restrictive because we never want to go back to where we were at,” Norris said.