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Protective separation still nursing homes’ policy

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Gerald Patterson and his wife Jane celebrate their 58th wedding anniversary through a window at a Huntsville nursing home on June 1. (provided photo)

Jane and Gerald Patterson celebrated their 58th wedding anniversary Monday, separated by a pane of glass at a nursing home in Pell City. 

Gerald, an 80-year-old retired Army captain with dementia, sat on a recliner inside the Col. Robert L. Howard Veterans Nursing Home, while Jane, 79, stood outside his window, beaming at him. They were only 3 feet apart, but the closed window between them — shut for the sake of safety during the COVID-19 pandemic — may as well have been a window to another world. Photos from the meeting show Gerald with a bemused smirk; Jane has a wide grin and a plate in her hands. She had cake to celebrate. 

The visits are good; he seems to still know Jane, she said Tuesday, and laughs at her jokes. Leaving is the hardest part. 

“He always asks me, ‘Where are you going, when will you be back,’” she said. “I don’t know how much he knows. He probably forgets a few minutes later, but I haven’t forgotten.” 

 

Staying safe inside

The Pattersons are one family among thousands in Alabama separated from loved ones by the coronavirus pandemic. There are 231 nursing homes in the state, according to the Alabama Nursing Home Association, with more than 27,000 beds statewide. Many of their clients, people aged 65 and older, are ranked among the most vulnerable to the virus by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

“The Howard Home will text me about every little change; changes in medication, his blood thinner — he’s a diabetic. He had a heart valve put in 20 years ago,” Jane said. “There are a lot of physical things wrong with him.” 

She said she feels comfortable about Gerald’s safety at the home, even with the threat of the virus. The regular contact helps, and she’s familiar with the staff. 

David Montgomery, a 60-year-old Oxford resident, used to visit his 93-year-old mother, Ann Oakes, in a Huntsville facility once every few weeks to have lunch. Now it’s a brief stay outside her window, too. She has a memory condition, he said, and they often discuss the same topics a few times over. Lunch is easier than chatting outside the window, he said. 

Montgomery said he was satisfied his mother was safe, too. 

“We went up on Mother’s Day and asked if we could give her a card, which they took,” he said. “I didn’t expect them to do that. I don’t know if they sprayed it with anything.” 

Federal data shows that nearly 26,000 nursing home residents have died from COVID-19, according to an NPR report Monday, and more than 60,000 residents have become ill. The numbers, the story states, don’t include all nursing homes nationwide. 

The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, a federal agency working under the Department of Health and Human Services, ordered nursing homes in April to start sending their COVID-19 patient data to the organization. About 80 percent of homes nationwide have complied with the request from CMS, NPR reported states, with another 20 percent that may face fines for noncompliance. 

That data will be released to the public on Thursday, CMS announced Monday, at medicare.gov/nursinghomecompare, where users will be able to check COVID-19 infection data for each nursing home in compliance. The site currently displays ratings for local homes based on recent health inspections, staffing hours and adherence to clinical quality measures. 

 

Best efforts

Brandon Farmer, CEO of the Alabama Nursing Home Association, was quoted in a statement Monday as saying that the data’s release “proves that Alabama nursing homes are on the front lines of fighting COVID-19. The Alabama Nursing Home Association hopes this illustrates why it is important to prioritize resources for skilled nursing facilities.” 

According to Farmer, local homes release their COVID-19 data to their county health departments, and the state Department of Public Health, in turn. Some Alabama nursing homes have had difficulty enrolling in the National Healthcare Safety Network, a CDC infection tracking system, he claimed in the release, in spite of their best efforts. 

Jane Patterson, wife of the retired Army captain, said Tuesday that she has given regular communication with Gerald her best efforts, too. They talk via Facetime calls a few times a week, she said, and always have their Monday meetings. 

“You just do the best you can do,” Jane said. “Our kids and our friends keep assuring me I have done the best I can do. I’m content with that, most of the time.”

She said she will keep going to Gerald’s window until the pandemic ends, citing advice from a family member that has kept her going. 

“If he can stand it, you can too,” she said. “If you really love somebody.” 

Assistant Metro Editor Ben Nunnally: 256-235-3560. 

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