Patricia Decker wheeled her walker to the large, sunny dining room at Caritas House Assisted Living in Southwest Baltimore this week and ate her meals with other people, instead of alone in her room with just her television.
Plexiglass dividers and spaced-out, assigned seating — just three to a table — made conversation difficult. But the 85-year-old relished the small luxury of enjoying her ravioli, chicken orzo soup and cake in the company of neighbors she hadn’t seen for most of the past year.
“We’re hoping this will be regular now, because we’ve all been vaccinated now,” Decker said. “That’s the difference.”
The assisted-living facility near St. Agnes Hospital had only a single, asymptomatic resident case of COVID-19 over the past year, and all 50 of the current residents have been vaccinated in the past two months, according to officials with Catholic Charities, the group home’s operator.
Nursing homes and assisted living facilities confronted some of the largest and deadliest coronavirus outbreaks in the past year, because of the virus’ tendency to seriously sicken and kill the elderly and immuno-compromised at the highest rates. At the forefront of the national vaccination effort, they have seen significant drops in cases and deaths in Maryland and across the country.
The pandemic has killed more than 3,400 nursing home residents and staff in Maryland in the past year. About 235,950 vaccine doses have been distributed to the more than 200 facilities statewide, according to the Maryland Department of Health, through a federal partnership with CVS and Walgreens that runs through mid-March.
About 80% to 90% of Maryland nursing home residents have agreed to get the shots, roughly in line with the national average, along with about half of all staff, roughly 10% higher than the national average, according to the Health Facilities Association of Maryland, which represents operators in the state.
The effort appears to be paying off. The facilities have seen an 82% drop in cases and a 63% decrease in deaths nationwide since Dec. 20, according to the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, which represent more than 14,000 nursing homes and long term care centers.
In Maryland facilities, the number of cases has dropped 88% and deaths are down 84% since that week, according to a Baltimore Sun analysis of state data. The number of facilities with an active case is down 57% since mid-December, Gov. Larry Hogan said in a news conference this week.
Maryland has an estimated 23,000 nursing home residents and patients and 27,600 staff across the state, according to the state association. The number of vaccinations is higher due to turnover of residents and staff.
CVS and Walgreens sent an excess 25,000 doses to the state health department because they weren’t needed for long-term care facilities, the governor said. But the association is pushing for 21,000 doses a month to be set aside for future residents and hires.
“Here in Maryland, COVID cases in nursing homes are the lowest they’ve been since October, in advance of the holiday surge,” said Joe DeMattos, the association’s president. “While we have a ways to go, this is proof that prioritizing vaccination in our sector saves lives.”
Like many nursing home staffers, Olivia Kitcher-Yamikeh initially was hesitant to be among the first in the country to get a COVID-19 vaccine. She recalled a previous bad reaction to a flu vaccine.
But Kitcher-Yamikeh, director of nursing at the Charles E. Smith Life Community in Rockville, is a senior member of the 1,200-person staff at Maryland’s largest nursing home complex.
“I had a lot of the staff looking up to me,” she said. “How would I live with myself if I know I am the cause of any of my residents’ deaths?”
The 38-acre campus, with about 850-900 people in nursing, assisted and independent living, has a vaccination rate of about 83% among residents and more than two-thirds among its staff, officials said. The community has gone about two weeks since its last positive case.
Residents are now excitedly looking forward to the future, Kitcher-Yamikeh said.
“It’s been a year, and some of them have had grandkids and great-grandkids they haven’t met, they’ve only seen virtually,” she said. “They’re hoping things will get better and they will get to hold and touch their loved ones. ... We’re just really happy to have vaccines.”
Kelly Drennon, the scheduling manager at the Hammonds Lane Center in Anne Arundel County, contracted COVID-19 from someone outside of work around Thanksgiving. Drennon said she didn’t work while sick, but she spent her quarantine tortured by thoughts of worst-case scenarios.
It changed her outlook on getting the shot when it became available, she said.
“Had I not known, I could have infected my entire family. That was the game-changer for me,” she said. “I needed to do my part, and I needed to help protect these residents, as well as my coworkers.”
Working at a nursing home during a pandemic has been “really stressful, crazy — it’s been scary,” Drennon said.
But the 80-person staff, which is 70% vaccinated, has seen little turnover, which she said has helped maintain both safety and morale among both them and the residents, she said.
The staff’s mentality over the past year, Drennon said, has been: “It’s going to be a rough time, but we are all here. We’re all a family. We’re going to be together, and we’re going to ride this thing out.”
The pandemic has been nearly as hard on residents’ family members as it has for them and staff.
Angelina McGinley’s father, Andrew McGinley, got his COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic at the Franklin Woods Center in Rosedale, where he’d lived for about seven years. But the 77-year-old Navy veteran, who loved the Orioles, Ravens and bowling, died of acute kidney failure in the early hours of Jan. 29.
McGinley, 45, of Dundalk, and her two sisters knew he wasn’t a fan of nursing home food, so they took turns bringing him dinner and a milkshake, collectively visiting about five nights a week. She praised the staff, who offered video calls and window visits, and even hosted a Father’s Day parade when they could not come to his room during the pandemic.
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But she described her father’s painful isolation and the heartbreak of families who spent the last year apart from their loved ones — particularly those like hers, who couldn’t kiss and hug them goodbye.
“There wasn’t a playbook for this, so I think everybody did the best they could,” McGinley said. “It really took a toll on my sisters and I. ... I just take solace in knowing my dad’s in a better place. It’s been a crazy time, and he doesn’t have to worry about it anymore.”
Sheila Liles spent most of the past year in her room with the door shut at the Hammond Lane Center, watching Netflix and YouTube, assembling puzzles, and keeping in touch with friends and family over the phone.
The 65-year-old from West Baltimore got her vaccine doses at a recent clinics at the nursing home. The staff members have offered a variety of virtual activities, she said, including Bingo, music and trivia, on the nursing home’s closed-circuit channel.
“They do all types of activities on a daily basis,” she said. “All we’ve got to do is tune in.”
Once Maryland emerges from the pandemic, Liles wants to spend time outdoors: “Just sit and enjoy the weather.”
“When you’re restricted like this, you start realizing a lot of things — what’s important, and what’s not,” she said. “People are starting to realize how connected we really are, and how we need each other, worldwide.”