Nathan Johnson is part of a PioneerCare family that includes about 300 members but in these times with COVID-19 numbers surging, he will admit that many of the staff are growing weary.
“I am very proud of our staff, we have so many people who are putting in extra hours and putting in overtime,” Johnson said. “That is not to say our staff is not tired.”
Nursing staff see sickness, both physical and mental, every day. Death also walks the halls. The person they chat with one day may not be there the next time they punch in for their shift.
COVID-19 has changed the ballgame in a big way. The sudden impact of the disease has nursing facilities on edge.
PioneerCare and other nursing facilities in the Fergus Falls area are 10 months into the process. Johnson feels the local providers were doing pretty well until fall arrived with a second surge of the virus.
Otter Tail County currently has a 17.1% positivity rate according to Johnson. Anything over 10% is considered high.
“We’ve done over 10,000 tests to date,” said Johnson, who works as the chief executive at PioneerCare. Johnson has personally been tested for the coronavirus 28 times.
At a certain stage, federal law dictates that nursing home staff be tested twice a week - a quick test and a PCR test. These tests are both conducted by taking nasal swabs but one receives a more thorough testing than the other. Johnson has had both.
What the tests have shown is 60% of all the people tested positive in the organization have never demonstrated symptoms.
“That’s what makes this so tricky, so dangerous,” Johnson said. “A person usually doesn’t know it.”
The testing PioneerCare has done has nearly always picked up the virus when staff members are asymptomatic. At that point they are sent home to quarantine.
Sources of the coronavirus come from everywhere and are carried by the young as well as the old.
“So few of our staff are out because they’ve tested positive,” Johnson said. “Most of our staff is out because they are running their own homes.”
One of the greatest burdens the residents of the nursing facilities are bearing during the pandemic is separation from their loved ones.
“The one thing we do understand about this virus is that it targets people with underlying respiratory conditions and people who live closely together and so those two things make our seniors a more vulnerable age group than any other group,” Johnson said.
Everyone entering PioneerCare is screened.
On the last day of November there were 13 residents at PioneerCare with active COVID-19 cases. Eight staff members also had active cases. There were no active cases at the PioneerCare Memory Cottages in Fergus Falls or Breckenridge and none at the PioneerPointe Assisted Living Center in Fergus Falls.
Johnson pointed out that nursing facilities strive to be welcoming and friendly places for their residents and guests. Yet the coronavirus threat has forced a change in nursing home policies.
“We are very sensitive to that reality. One of the unintended consequences of all these protections we put in place is that it creates isolation and loneliness and that is very real.”
Johnson said visitors will be allowed again when the positivity rate drops below 10% in the country and there are no active cases in PioneerCare.
Another program the Minnesota Department of Health has put into place is “Essential Caregivers” which, in a nutshell, each resident can select one family member and that person can go through PioneerCare training and, by doing so, can enter the facility and visit.
Johnson said that he had never imagined that nursing homes would someday be dealing with a worldwide pandemic.
So what does the future hold for the beleaguered staff members and residents of nursing homes?
“There is always hope and we are getting word from the Minnesota Department of Health and other public health officials that a vaccine is going to be available shortly,” Johnson said. “Let’s hope for a quick distribution of vaccinations.”
When the distribution of the vaccine happens it is Johnson’s understanding that nursing homes and assisted living facilities are going to be a priority for distribution.
“We’re resilient but we’re tired,” Johnson said.
Johnson wants people in the Fergus Falls community who might find themselves facing some down time to contact PioneerCare.
“I would say to those folks if they have some time on their hands consider coming and helping us at Pioneer. We’d love to have them. We have created some temporary jobs just for that, some support positions,” Johnson said.