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BELFAST, Maine — Bundled in a blanket against the unseasonably cold weather and perched on the edge of a lawn chair, Ruthe Gray got as close as she possibly could to her mother, Estelle Pendleton.
But the women were separated by two barriers.
One was the glass pane of a window.
The other was the painful fact that The Commons at Tall Pines, the skilled nursing facility where the 81-year-old Pendleton has been living since October, is on the front lines of a battle with COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. For more than a month now, visitors, including residents’ family members, have been barred from entering the nursing home in hope that the virus would not take root there.
But the virus, stealthy and deadly, found its way in.
As of Monday, half of the state’s 51 coronavirus deaths have been nursing home residents. Altogether, six nursing homes in Maine had recorded outbreaks as of Friday, affecting a total of 133 residents and 78 staff members.
The situation seems dire.
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Dr. Nirav Shah, the director of the Maine Center for Disease Control, has spoken often about how congregate care facilities are especially vulnerable to the disease. The spread of the virus is so difficult to slow that Maine health care providers, including overseers at nursing homes, have asked Gov. Janet Mills for civil and criminal immunity during the pandemic.
But the virus has wreaked particular havoc at two nursing homes in the state. One is the Maine Veterans Home in Scarborough, where as of Friday, 30 residents and 20 staff members had tested positive, and 11 people had died of the disease.
The other is Tall Pines. So far, 32 residents and 11 staff members at The Commons at Tall Pines have tested positive. Eleven residents have died, making this modest, 68-bed facility an epicenter for the coronavirus in Maine.
“It’s moving so fast,” said Gray, of Lincolnville. “It’s heartbreaking.”
Over the months, she has gotten to know the others who live in her mother’s wing. When she visits her mother through the window, she has tried to keep in touch with them too.
“I run around and tap on the windows and say hi to all my favorites,” Gray said, adding that the disease has taken an almost unimaginably high toll. “I’ve lost two of my favorites.”
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The obituaries tell the story
In Belfast, the speed and ferocity of the outbreak has brought the disease home to Waldo County. Until a few weeks ago an outbreak like this was thought to be something that only happened in China, Italy or elsewhere. But the obituaries printed in local papers that document the victims of the virus tell the stories of people who were deeply rooted to their families and communities.
Leone A. Harriman, a 71-year-old wife, mother and aunt who loved playing Bingo in Belfast and cooked enough to feed the town of Northport.
Marguerite M. Larrabee, a 94-year-old woman who held the Boston Post cane for being the oldest resident of the town of Knox, who was a mom to any child who entered her home and who was known for her homemade biscuits.
Richard Roberts, 78, a Lincolnville husband, father and grandfather of 14 who coached soccer and was an avid athlete into his 70s.
The list goes on — every life important, every person loved.
“Their lives are meaningful, and this is really sad for our families and our town,” Erica Rubin Irish, a librarian whose mother-in-law lives at The Commons, said Thursday.
Despite some criticism linked to the facility’s below-average health inspection score from the federal Medicare system in May 2019, the community has rallied behind Tall Pines. Belfast Mayor Eric Sanders said the community has come together to support the people who live and work at the facility. It’s a time for residents to embrace, support and “pray if you pray,” he said. Last week, the Belfast City Council voted to give $2,000 in monetary donations to support Tall Pines staff. On Friday, Sanders delivered the donations and a care package of bottled water, juice and packaged snack foods to the facility.
“We are dead set to make sure Tall Pines knows how much we love and appreciate them,” Sanders said. “It’s often the most unthought of situations that cause a community to rise and draw closer together to protect their own. That is my feeling of what the citizens of Belfast are doing right now … People at Tall Pines are feeling the heartbeat of every Belfast citizen pounding for them right now in support.”
Birdfeeders and support
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Because of the outbreak, Tall Pines staff is not allowing most gifts or outside food to enter the building. However, after staff members suggested that community members who want to do something could put bird feeders up outside residents’ windows, nearly two dozen have shown up. Brightly colored pinwheels and baskets of flowers have appeared outside, too, as family and community members search for tangible ways to show the residents quarantined inside the building that they are loved, and nurses and other staff members that they are appreciated.
“The only thing we haven’t figured out is how to be more helpful,” Gray said. “We’re going to have a heck of a barbecue when this is over.”
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She watched through the window as CNAs and nurses, wearing full suits of personal protective equipment — including a plastic visor over their faces — checked on the residents inside. Her mother is lonely, she said, without the human touch she’s used to. But a constant stream of family visitors outside helps. She and her mother talk on the phone — with the window between them — and enjoy a spirited banter. Last week, when it poured down rain, her mother had a good chuckle when Gray showed up wearing a contractor bag as an impromptu raincoat.
“She’s sad and lonely, but she’s not as sad and lonely as she could be,” she said. “She has something to look forward to, and laugh at.”
The fact that there’s so much sickness inside the nursing home does make Gray worry a bit about her own safety as she stands outside of it. She wears a facemask, and has both hand sanitizer and Clorox wipes close at hand so she can clean off the window and other surfaces she might touch.
“I’m trying to be careful, but what do you do?” she asked. “If the worst comes to worst, if I have to choose staying home by myself and being safe or not seeing my mother again, of course I’m going to go. I really think keeping her spirits up is making the difference.”
Gray watched as uniformed Maine National Guard soldiers, wearing masks on their faces, moved in and out of the facility. Charndra Michaud, the resident services director at the Residence at Tall Pines, said last week that Tall Pines had lost staff, either because workers had tested positive for the virus or they were too afraid to come in. A few days ago, four guardsmen came to the nursing home to clean and help.
“Obviously, there are some people that are really struggling,” Michaud said Friday. “Others just put one foot in front of the next and get through it. A lot of our staff in that building have been doing a fantastic job keeping things together for the residents. They’re being heroic every single day.”
Along with the uniformed soldiers, some nurses and other staff members also came out of the building for their lunch break.
“There’s my girl,” Gray said, waving at one of the nurses, who smiled and waved back.
Staff members have to try to hold it together inside the building for the sake of the residents, she said, and often when they come out, she sees them crying.
“It’s hard,” Gray said. “They’re taking good care of them.”
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Concerns and hopes
Not all the families of residents agree. Kelly Reif, the daughter of Richard Roberts, who died of COVID-19 on April 11, was deeply critical in an interview with the Portland Press Herald about the lack of care she feels her dad had received at Tall Pines prior to and during the outbreak.
“The COVID pandemic has exposed the issues that have always existed,” she told the BDN on Thursday. “Sadly, families who advocate for their loved ones are not able to protect them from neglect and/or infection control measures, leaving them vulnerable to illness and death.”
Others in the community have a different experience of the care their family members have received at Tall Pines. Toni Mailloux, whose mother lives at the Commons but who has so far tested negative for the coronavirus, feels she has received good care there.
“I think they do a good job, and I was up there every other day,” she said. “It always amazes me that everyone that walks by and sees my mother knows her name.”
Rubin Irish said much the same about the care that her 93-year-old mother-in-law, who has also tested negative for the virus, is receiving.
“The people at Tall Pines have been so kind and helpful,” she said. “In the course of this whole thing, it’s been hard. I was going over there to visit her in the evenings all the time. All of a sudden, we can’t go over there anymore.”
For her, and the other families, this is a time to wait, and hope, for the end of the outbreak and a return to some kind of normalcy, although it is hard to imagine what that will look like.
“We’re just wading, and waiting, through this right now. We’ll get to the other side. I think that’s all we can do,” she said. “Hold out hope that we’re headed back to things being OK again.”
Gray said that she and her mother are brainstorming ideas for the future. So far, they have plans to go to Dairy Queen and to eat Chinese food, but they’re not stopping there.
“We’re making a bucket list of what we’re going to do when this is over,” she said.
Watch: Should you remove loved ones from care facilities during the outbreak?