Staff at Oak Terrace Assisted Living in North Mankato couldn’t tell you when the coronavirus first entered the facility. But they’ve watched as the disease it causes, COVID-19, has raced through staff and clients, leading to health scares for many and death for some.
“There has been a lot of emotion,” said administrator Drew Hood. “People go into the health care, because they want to help people and they also want to bring joy to people. It’s really hard for caring people to see the residents they love decline and be afflicted by this virus.”
The leadership team and staff have worked tirelessly to institute safety measures, to take precautions, to protect themselves and clients, at the facility. Their efforts may very well have saved lives, but these weeks have been painful. In a May 27 joint release with Nicollet County, the facility reported seven residents and 20 staff members at Oak Terrace in North Mankato had tested positive for COVID-19. Hood did not want to say the number of residents who have died from COVID-19 complications, due to privacy reasons, but it’s more than one.
Since March, Oak Terrace has restricted visitors, encouraged staff who showed symptoms to stay home, restricted/eliminated congregate dining and isolated residents who were symptomatic to prevent further spread of the virus. The facility has also reached out to residents’ families to make sure they had up to date information about their loved ones and the care they’ve been receiving.
“As of my knowledge (coming from a webinar I was on with Care Provider of MN) we are only one of 37 communities in the state to do testing of all residents as well as doing mass testing of staff,” Hood said.
But the virus managed to find its way inside, and staff suddenly found itself in a near impossible fight, trying to stop an invisible threat from impacting those most vulnerable to it. And worse, caretakers were left in a predicament of needing to do their job while fearing that their work could contribute to spreading the virus without even realizing it.
“What have we found by this testing? We have found asymptomatic residents and staff,” Hood said. “We have had both residents and staff report, ‘I feel fine; I can’t believe that I am positive.’ This is why this pandemic is so difficult — it can be spread by those who do not know they have it. This pandemic is a difficult time for all, and the residents we serve are at highest risk.”
The virus has made an unfair example of Oak Terrace Assisted Living. It’s presence in the North Mankato facility has been a model for how the virus can spread without damage among many, and yet be so dangerous to the vulnerable.
“The story of Oak Terrace and COVID-19 has many storylines,” Hood said. “It is a story of a virus that is affecting the world. It is a personal story of individuals being away from family and friends. It is a story of staff who come to work every day to care for the elders in our society. And I could go on.”
Nicollet County, as a whole, had 87 confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of the June 2 Minnesota Department of Health report. That case count is minor compared to some counties in the south central region, including Rice County, which is approaching 500 confirmed. And yet, Nicollet County has 10 deaths related to the disease, more than any other south central county. All 10 deaths were to residents in their 80s or 90s.
Cassandra Sassenberg, director of Nicollet County Health and Human Services, noted that coronavirus in its ability to spread without warning.
“Unlike influenza, there is no prophylactic treatment for COVID-19,” she said. “It is transmitted very efficiently and remains invisible for days before symptoms appear. Older adults are the most at-risk to experience severe symptoms from this virus. Because there are no therapies or approved treatments for COVID-19, many health care facilities will continue to see a rise in cases, despite infection control measures and preventive action. We continue to urge residents to take necessary precautions to slow transmission, like the use of cloth masks, social distancing, and following recommendations as they are updated by the Minnesota Department of Health.”
The virus spreads anywhere and everywhere, but it’s only some who will be impacted in the worst way.
“One of the thing is that makes this virus so dangerous is that is causes mild symptoms in so many but such severe symptoms in those most vulnerable,” Hood said.
He believes it’s imperative for all residents to do what they can to not contribute to the spread of the virus and to take the simplest of precautions.
“We owe it as part of a civilized society to help protect the most vulnerable,” he said. “The other thing is that, at some point, normal life is going to return, and they’re likely to open up the economy before there is a vaccine. We’re going to need to do the simple things, like wearing face masks, using hand hygiene, and being aware of our own symptoms, so we don’t spread the virus.”
Hood said he’s choosing to be up front and transparent about the virus’s impact on the facility, because he and his team believe they have nothing to hide, and by speaking up, perhaps they can help save lives: “When individuals understand what’s going on, maybe it will help people understand how dangerous this is to the elderly and might encourage people to do what they can to not spread the virus.”