Ethel Hill is watching the spread of the new coronavirus from the window of her two-bedroom apartment at Vantage House, a senior living community in Columbia.
While she may be by herself in her apartment, the 87-year-old is not alone in her current solitary status.
With a growing aging population, Howard County is home to 44 different senior living facilities, according to the Howard County Office on Aging and Independence. The older segment of the population is under increasing concern from health care and government officials as the most susceptible to the coronavirus.
Howard County reported its first case of coronavirus on Sunday, an 82-year-old woman with an underlying health condition who is a resident at Lorien Health Services’ Elkridge facility. Since then, 15 more people have been diagnosed in the county, bringing its total to 16, and the state total to 107 as of Thursday.
According to the 82-year-old woman’s daughter, who asked that her name not be used, her mother is doing well and is “up and talking.”
“We have no clue how she got it,” the daughter said. “I was the last outsider to visit my mom. My doctor wouldn’t test me without symptoms; the doctor just said I should self-quarantine.”
The woman’s daughter said she’s been in quarantine since Sunday, along with one of her sisters.
Now residents at senior facilities across the county are adapting to new rules and restrictions to stop the spread of the coronavirus and learn from the country’s first outbreak at the Life Care Center nursing home in Kirkland, Washington, with 29 coronavirus-related deaths to date.
According to the Howard County Health Department, after the first case was discovered at the Lorien Health Services’ Elkridge facility, staff from the county health department and the Maryland Department of Health visited the building. Staff members “observed infection control measures, and provided further recommendations to mitigate further infection between staff-staff and staff-patients and patient-patient,” the county department said.
“We are following [U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] protocols and providing Lorien [with] daily and updated guidance,” the department added.
According to the Howard County Office on Aging and Independence, there are 24 independent senior and disability housing options; four nursing and rehabilitative care facilities; five small assisted living homes with 16 or fewer residents; and 11 assisted living options with more than 17 residents in the county.
Joseph DeMattos, president and CEO of Health Facilities Association of Maryland, represents health care providers at assisted living and nursing facilities across the state, including Lorien Health Services, the site of the first Howard County case.
“Sadly we all stand on the shoulders of the experience in Kirkland, Washington. We have a great deal to learn from their experience,” DeMattos said. “We have been actively engaging in COVID-19 preparation since the last week of January.”
At a March 10 meeting with Gov. Larry Hogan and leaders from the long-term care community, DeMattos suggested the governor limit visits to senior communities across the state; later that day, Hogan put statewide restrictions in place, including restricting access to essential visits only.
For Hill, the mother of state Del. Terri Hill who has lived at Vantage House for nearly three years, that means staying in her apartment and allowing company only into her personal apartment, not into communal spaces at the facility.
Hill said when visitors enter the lobby or garage, their temperature gets taken, a precaution she’s happy Vantage House and facilities around the state are taking.
“We try to maintain this social distancing,” she said. “When you consider the alternative, I’m OK with it. I’m more concerned about the young people; there’s a certain age group that thinks they won’t get sick.”
When Jo Kruger visited her 82-year-old mother in Waterfalls of Catonsville on March 11, she didn’t know it would be the last time she’d see her for the foreseeable future.
Kruger’s mother, who was diagnosed with dementia about a decade ago, lives with seven other patients in the memory care facility, which has now closed to visitors.
“She knew there was an illness going around; she didn’t realize the severity of it,” Kruger said.
During Kruger’s last visit, “I just said, ‘Hopefully I’ll see you tomorrow,’ and I haven’t gone back.”
Kruger’s mother used to enjoy socializing during field trips to senior centers in Baltimore and Howard counties, but “that’s no longer happening,” Kruger said. In Baltimore County, where seniors in 2020 make up a quarter of the population, Baltimore County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. closed the county’s 20 senior centers starting March 16 in response to the pandemic.
Still, the Catonsville resident is relieved her mother is in the facility, where “they’re better at taking care of her and keeping things clean.”
Ivy Johnson, a certified medication technician at Waterfalls of Catonsville, said the center is doing its due diligence in cleaning surfaces and encouraging residents to wash their hands frequently.
Kruger, who can reach her mother by phone, said the older woman is going “a little stir-crazy," but the news coverage “is so constant she can remember what’s going on.”
Kruger said her mom will ask what precautions she needs to take and what it’s like in grocery stores. Kruger assures her that the restrictions could last “a couple more weeks, and we’ll be able to get on with our normal lives."
As the primary caregiver for her 82-year-old mother, Flora Betro plans to visit Lutheran Village at Miller’s Grant in Ellicott City once a week to assist with her mother’s medications. While the facility is allowing primary caregivers daily access, Betro decided to take precautions, including working from home and limiting activities in an effort to prevent herself from becoming a carrier and possibly infecting her mother.
Movement within the facility, however, is even more restricted, according to David Pardoe, 81, and Elaine Pardoe, 80, who have lived in the community for four years.
Monday night was the last time the couple dined at The Pub, one of the facility’s three dining options. Residents are now placing meal orders, putting an order form on their doorstep each morning and getting dinner delivered each afternoon.
“We just miss getting together with our friends,” Elaine Pardoe said. “There’s no sense in being nervous in it. Heck, we’re 80; we’ve seen a lot.”
Andy Lunt, 75, another resident at Lutheran Village at Miller’s Grant, said the biggest disadvantage is losing the community interaction.
“The greatest benefit for being [at Lutheran Village at Miller’s Grant] is the community, the interaction with other people,” Lunt said. “We tend to be with people much of the day.”
Lunt said he feels safer in the community because the policies put in place limit outside interaction.
“We’re in a somewhat protected environment,” Lunt said. “The policies in place would limit the spread if a case did occur here. We feel we’re in a good place during this situation, no matter how long it lasts.”