By Crystal Burns
April was a tough month for the six staff members that volunteered to shelter in place with 21 Harlan Morris residents for 30 days to prevent COVID-19 from entering the facility.
But it was a good month for the tight-knit retirement community that now feels even more like a family, Administrator Amanda Newell said.
Harlan Morris is owned by St. John’s Community Services, which has a presence in multiple states. Company-wide, leaders took drastic measures to keep residents and employees safe as the country grappled with the beginning stages of the pandemic.
Newell said the company began preparing Harlan Morris staff for a possible shelter-in-place order weeks before the six staff members settled in for 30 days at the facility. They asked for volunteers, and five others stepped up with Newell.
“I think [the volunteers] realized it was just needed,” she said. “They knew it would come to extreme measures. If we have another surge in the fall, we’re prepared to do it again because we know the whole point is to keep our residents safe.”
Newell was joined by Ray Carroll, Dana Bryant, Belinda Kimble, Sherry Fisher, and Marilyn Krug. Before quarantining, staff members were tested for COVID-19, and all six volunteers tested negative.
For the first 14 days of the shelter in place order, residents were quarantined, with staff delivering meals to them in their rooms. After the 14-day mark, residents returned to common areas for meals and socialization. Staff did daily temperature checks of residents, and residents wore face masks – and continue to do so – in common areas.
Residents still received visits from family and friends, but no outside guests were allowed inside the facility. Instead, they visited through their windows, or family would park in the circle drive and speak to family sitting in rocking chairs on the front porch. Newell said staff also encouraged Zoom visits and FaceTime, helping residents stay connected with their loved ones.
Volunteers worked in 8-hour shifts, six days a week, with Newell serving as a floater. They all took on responsibilities to keep residents healthy while families were prevented from coming inside.
“That month was hard, but it made the six staff that stayed appreciate everybody’s job,” Newell said. “It was a great team that stayed here.”
About halfway through the 30 days, staff and residents were devasted by the death of resident Trudy Mingle whose daughter, Sherry Fisher, was sheltering in place at Harlan Morris. Mingle’s death was not related to COVID-19, but when Fisher left to be with her grieving family, she could not come back into the facility.
The remaining volunteers took on 10-hour shifts to cover for their friend.
Ray Carroll said he volunteered to shelter in place because he wanted to help as much as he could in a difficult situation. He took a lot away from the experience that he didn’t expect, like closer relationships with residents and peers and a deeper appreciation for the work every employee does to keep Harlan Morris running.
There were some foibles along the way, Carroll and Newell admitted. Washing and styling residents’ hair took some time since staff members weren’t skilled in those areas. Regardless, they believe the residents loved having them inside the facility 24 hours a day for those 30 days.
“They missed us when we left,” Carroll said.
To leave, the five remaining staffers had to take another COVID-19 test and test negative, which they all did. They are slowly getting back to a more normal schedule, but with lay-offs and furloughs across the St. John’s company, Harlan Morris is down from 14 employees to 10.
“The duties for all staff have changed,” Newell said. “We’re doing what families once did.”
St. John’s Community Services is slowly lifting restrictions and working to put a visitor policy in place for Harlan Morris. Families are now allowed to take their loved ones out to church, salon appointments, shopping, etc. During April, residents were only allowed to leave for medical appointments. Home health staff were able to see patients on the front porch, with employees and residents wearing face masks and social distancing as much as possible.
When families are allowed to visit their residents in person again, they will be limited on time and where they can meet. They must also test negative for COVID-19, and the company is looking at retesting all staff and residents each month.
Newell said leaders hope to have the policy in place in the next couple of weeks.