Given that Connecticut’s long-term care facilities house those most vulnerable to infectious diseases, the coronavirus has had a devastating impact. According to the CT Mirror, 57.6% of all COVID-19 deaths in Connecticut have happened in the state’s nursing homes, forcing facilities to take drastic measures to try to keep the disease out.
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For the owner of a Connecticut assisted living facility, “bubbling up” is the answer.
“On March 22, 17 staff members and I moved into our home -- into five RVs and into the house next door,” said Tyson Belanger, owner of Shady Oaks Assisted Living in Bristol.
Belanger now works and sleeps in the same space.
“We all committed to living here for up to two months,” Belanger said. “Our home is a safe place to live and work, and I believe all senior homes deserve an opportunity to bubble up.”
Most facilities in the state have allowed staff to come and go, relying on checkpoints evaluating their health as they come in for each shift. But Belanger doesn’t like that approach since workers might be asymptomatic and thus carry COVID-19 into long-term care homes, so he took a drastic approach -- no one in, no one out.
Shady Oaks is operating short-staffed as a result -- 18 of 50 employees remain on-site.
“It’s a lot of work,” Belanger said. “Most of our staff is averaging up to 80 hours a week.”
Besides long work hours, Belanger said some are having a hard time not being at home for relatives during such a difficult and stressful time.
Faith Broucker, one of the Shady Oaks staffers who left her family behind, hasn’t lived at home with her husband, daughter and 85-year-old mother in over a month. She also misses her two dogs.
“They’d be up on my lap giving me kisses. I don’t get that every day,” Broucker said. “I don’t want anybody sitting on my lap and kissing me here.”
For Broucker, the peace of mind of knowing she can’t infect her loved ones is enough to keep her away.
“I’m not traveling to and from work -- working in the health care industry, maybe collecting germs and returning them home,” Broucker said. “Instead, I’m safe here, keeping everyone safe while my family is at home maintaining their safety.”
Belanger said owners of a couple of nursing homes in the state have reached out to ask him about bubbling up. While it’s a policy that Matt Barrett, president of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities, supports in theory, he said it may not work for everyone.
“It is an ideal strategy,” Barrett said “but, it’s one that would be a very difficult challenge to implement across the sector.”
He cited capacity as a major issue -- many places don’t have space to house their employees. Also, cost is another barrier. Barrett said some nursing homes have adopted isolation strategies by putting workers up in hotels, but there’s no safety net for businesses willing to pay for it.
Barrett said skilled nursing facilities rely overwhelmingly on state Medicaid funds to support their services. “Housing employees is not a cost that’s included in the reimbursement for skilled nursing facilities.”
Connecticut Public Radio reached out to the state Department of Public Health to gauge its interest in Belanger’s bubble-up plan. Dr. Matthew Cartter, the state’s epidemiologist, said that commenting on future implementation of the strategy would be “too speculative.”
For now, Barrett said a better way forward involves securing more personal protective equipment for long-term care employees and making testing more readily available to them.
Meanwhile at Shady Oaks, Belanger is feeling the financial stress of a plan that relies heavily on incentivizing employees. Those who stay in get a raise, while he still pays his employees on the outside. Belanger said Shady Oaks’ gross weekly payroll is more than three times what it was before the pandemic.
Belanger acknowledged it may take outside financial support for bubbling up to become a common long-term care practice.
“It could be matching funds from the government for bonus pay for anyone who’s willing to stay on-site,” Belanger said.
But Belanger remains committed to doing right by his residents.
Shady Oaks employees were supposed to leave the bubble on May 17. But because testing for COVID-19 is still not widely available, Belanger has asked them to stay for more two weeks.
Faith Broucker agreed to stay on. For her, it’s another two weeks of peace.
And for Shady Oaks residents, so far, the news is good. Belanger says none of them has tested positive for COVID-19.