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Update: West Baltimore nursing home continues to beat COVID-19 | COMMENTARY

The Rev. Derrick DeWitt, right, directs the West Baltimore nursing home where his aunt, Gerri Alston, on porch, is a resident. The nursing home has not had a single infection during the coronavirus pandemic.
The Rev. Derrick DeWitt, right, directs the West Baltimore nursing home where his aunt, Gerri Alston, on porch, is a resident. The nursing home has not had a single infection during the coronavirus pandemic. (Baltimore Sun staff)

President Donald Trump contracted the coronavirus, but, so far, no one at the Maryland Baptist Aged Home has. The White House became a hot spot, but the virus still hasn’t reached the hallways of 2801 Rayner Ave. A little nursing home in West Baltimore has proven to be safer than the West Wing.

“We are still COVID-free,” says the Rev. Derrick DeWitt, director of the nursing home and pastor of First Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Sandtown-Winchester.

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Readers might recall meeting DeWitt in this space in June. The early actions he took proved decisive in keeping his 30 residents and 42 full- and part-time employees from being infected by a virus that by now has caused the deaths of more than 215,000 people across the U.S.

The first thing DeWitt did was eliminate all visitations. Relatives, volunteers and others were immediately prohibited from entering the place. Visits were eventually allowed, but only outdoors and at a safe distance. One at a time, residents were allowed to come out on the nursing home porch and speak to relatives on the sidewalk 12 to 18 feet away, across a small yard.

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That has not changed. There are still no in-person visits. The sidewalk is as far as visitors get — by appointment only — and, nine months into the pandemic, that has led to complaints that the restrictions are too harsh. You can imagine that some of DeWitt’s conversations with frustrated relatives have been tough.

“It’s less tough for me because I’m a pastor,” he chuckles. “There aren’t too many conversations that being a pastor has not prepared me for … At the end of those conversations, everybody seems to understand.”

DeWitt acted early and fast, laying out his plan to protect residents and staff in late February.

When I first spoke to him in June, I asked how he knew the coronavirus would pose a dire threat to the country — particularly to the elderly, and even more so to those residing in nursing homes, where one infection could lead to disaster. Nursing homes had some of the biggest outbreaks early in the pandemic. A nursing facility in Carroll County had 29 virus-related deaths among residents. Another home in Charles County had 37.

Nothing like that has happened at the Maryland Baptist Aged Home, considered to be the oldest African American owned and operated nursing home in the state.

What was the moment of clarity for DeWitt?

“Right after President Trump said we had 15 cases and it would soon be down to zero.”

Of course.

Right after the Liar-in-Chief expressed confidence that all would be well by Easter.

It was Feb. 26 when, at a White House briefing, Trump made that infamous “down to zero” claim. But we now know that Trump intentionally downplayed the threat and that he knew a lot more about the lethal potential of the virus than he let on.

In an interview with journalist Bob Woodward 19 days earlier, on Feb. 7, Trump acknowledged that he knew the coronavirus was deadlier than the seasonal flu and that it could be spread easily through the air. “You just breathe the air and that’s how it’s passed,” Trump said in a telephone conversation that Woodward recorded and reported in his new book, “Rage.”

In another recorded interview, in March, Trump admitted to Woodward that he had deliberately downplayed the threat because he didn’t want to create a panic.

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Of course, it’s more likely he didn’t want to rattle the stock market.

Either way, Trump had become irrelevant on Rayner Avenue. DeWitt did not wait for direction from the White House.

The nursing home already had procedures for preventing a virus from reaching its elderly residents; a nurse DeWitt hired several years earlier had established protocols and trained the staff.

So no one was shocked when DeWitt told employees to limit travel and contact with their family members. On reporting for work, each staffer had to fill out a questionnaire about recent, off-duty activities and health conditions. Temperatures of each employee were taken three times a day.

DeWitt ordered additional supplies. Masks were dispensed to all the residents. Community meals were eliminated; residents ate in their rooms. Employees were provided with meals so they would not have to go out for lunch or dinner.

And DeWitt considers his hiring of an additional activities coordinator key to making all this work. About half of his residents have no relatives who visit them, and DeWitt was concerned they would feel even more isolated during the pandemic.

“They have to stay active to guard against mental health issues, like depression,” he says. “I would say that having a lot of activities for the residents was just as important as the medical aspect of what we did.”

After my June column, DeWitt received national and even international media attention. (“I’ve been celebrified,” he laughs.) He also has been invited by elder care organizations to speak on the nursing home’s efforts to prevent infection. Tuesday afternoon, he was scheduled to speak online with a class at Harvard’s School of Public Health.

Several people, moved by the story, made thousands of dollars in donations to the nursing home over the summer. DeWitt put some of that toward bonuses for staff, some toward a new roof for the old nursing home.

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