For Giulia Cox, the last two years have been very tough.
Her 90-year-old father lives at the Mary Wade House, a nursing home in New Haven. At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, strict safety restrictions meant that she couldn’t visit him.
“I hadn’t seen him in person for months,” Cox recalled to FOX61 News recently.
"Because he has dementia, because he's 90, and because he's used to having me around for any kind of medical intervention, he was confused, he was isolated, he was fearful.”
This was the reality for hundreds of families in Connecticut and across the country when COVID-19 cases began to rise last year. Nursing homes were hit particularly hard by the virus.
What does the overall picture look like?:
In Connecticut, nearly 4,000 nursing home residents have lost their lives to the virus.
The most recent data from the Connecticut Department of Public Health shows three nursing home residents died in the two-week period from Oct. 27 to Nov. 9.
During the same time frame of Oct. 28 to Nov. 10 in 2020, Connecticut lost 53 nursing home residents last year.
While the virus is still spreading in some nursing homes, it's not nearly as prevalent.
J.P. Venoit, the president and CEO of Masonicare, said it can largely be attributed to the vaccine.
"We learned very quickly that that was really the start of us being able to see light at the end of the tunnel," he said.
Masonicare was one of the first to implement the vaccine mandate for its employees. That was announced in December 2020, and employees had until June to make it happen.
"Would I tell you that COVID was easy? No. Extremely stressful. Probably the most stressful time I think anybody in the healthcare field has ever gone through...and that also made us stronger," Venoit said. "I probably cried the most in the month of November, December of last year, were probably the most, probably the darkest times for Masonicare."
Masonicare created a task force to try and get ahead of the virus. Nursing homes across the state did the same. But for many, once COVID-19 got inside the building, it became difficult to stop it.
"Because we thought, and I believe this to this day, that we were doing everything we could to prevent the spread of the virus and the harmful effects of it, but we didn't have the tools early on," said Matthew Barrett, President & CEO of Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities.
"One, we didn't have a good understanding of how the virus was transmitting. And then when we understood that, we didn't have the testing and we didn't have the protective equipment in order to prevent its further spread. So, it was terribly frustrating in the beginning.”
At first, it wasn't clear that the virus could spread through someone who wasn't showing symptoms. Barrett said that hurt nursing homes.
"And that's one of the main tragedies of this story. Is that if that were better understood earlier on, I think the methods we employed to prevent the spread of the virus would have been much more effective," Barrett said.
Now, the world knows much more about COVID-19. Nursing homes have learned that testing and vaccinations have changed the trajectory of the virus. And all 209 nursing homes have someone in charge of infection control, something not everyone had before the pandemic.
"As far as communicable diseases go, nursing homes are safer than ever," said Sierra Drevline, Director of Employee Health Services at Masonicare.
"If we can stay the course on these vaccination rates and we can achieve similar outcomes on the booster, again not just in the skilled nursing home environment, but in the community generally, then we have the best chance possible for putting this pandemic in the rearview mirror in our state," Barrett said.
Right now, an average of 91% of residents in nursing homes in Connecticut are vaccinated, along with 95% of staff. Nursing homes are now working on getting everyone the booster shot, too.
Additional health guidance has been recommended by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, including ongoing resident and staff testing, appropriate use of personal protective equipment and more.
Hopeful for the future, but also cautious:
The rollout of the vaccine - and most recently the boosters - has given many people hope that soon breakthrough cases will be a thing of the past.
At Masonicare in Wallingford, residents are playing bingo and bowling again; they have happy hour on Fridays, and their stores are open for residents to shop in.
"It's a lot better. It's a happy time for myself and the residents," said Amanda Rodriguez, the Director of Recreation and Volunteer Services at Masonicare. "I know we still have to wear the mask, but they always say, 'I can see you smiling with your eyes.'"
"What's different now? Is the beautiful sound of noise and laughter. You hear people laughing and activities happening and the hustle-bustle of a community that's kind of back in motion," said Ann Collette, Vice President of Strategy at Masonicare.
But at any moment, they all know that if COVID-19 picks up in the community, it will impact nursing homes, too.
"This could turn quickly, and our fate for Connecticut nursing homes congregate environments is very much related to the prevalence of COVID in the community," Barrett said. "And so if COVID were to rise dramatically, we would be very concerned that these numbers would also rise dramatically."
For now, though, they'll enjoy a few things that seemed impossible, a year ago.
Cox now gets to see her father on a weekly basis. She also calls him on Facetime twice a week from her New York City home.
There are still safety restrictions in place, and Cox is more than happy to follow any guidance that will keep her father safe.
"It has been a really huge change in a year. And I think day to day, maybe we don't notice it, but when I talk with you and think about how hard it was this time last year, even, I'm just so grateful for the progress that we've made," Cox said.
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