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As COVID Finds Every Nursing Home In A Rural County, Staff Encourage Empathy

Lin Waterhouse and her husband, Dave, of West Plains, Missouri.
Photo provided
Lin Waterhouse and her husband, Dave, of West Plains, Missouri.


Lin Waterhouse and her husband, Dave, of West Plains, Missouri.
Credit Photo provided
Lin Waterhouse and her husband, Dave, of West Plains, Missouri.

Lin Waterhouse, an author living in West Plains, knew it wasn't a good sign that her husband's nursing home was calling her.

“In their e-mail, they would tell us that anyone with a [COVID-19] positive loved one would be contacted by phone,” Waterhouse said.

Her husband, Dave, was asymptomatic. But since nursing homes are doing more universal testing, a nasal swab had caught traces of the coronavirus in his nasal passageways. He was eventually moved into a COVID corridor.

Dave has Parkinson's Disease and a form of dementia called Lewy Body Dementia. As a younger man, he worked for AT&T for 30 years, then started his own electrical business. Lin describes their decades together as “an uncommonly good marriage” before his illness took hold. 

When his dementia became unsafe for him, Dave moved into the Brooke Haven Health Care facility in West Plains. Lin says when he was suddenly isolated due to the lockdowns to visitors earlier this year, he reverted to hallucinating, something he hadn't done in quite a while.

“He called to tell me that he had gotten fired and he was on his way back to San Bernardino,” Waterhouse said of one of their calls this month. See some of KSMU's recent local repeorting on dementia here.

Health official:  COVID-19 has spread to every nursing home in Howell County

Alzheimer's Disease is the most common form of Dementia. The local chapter of the Alzheimer's Association is encouraging families to speak with their loved ones if they see the warning signs.
Credit File photo, Horia Varlan / flickr.com

The director of the Howell County Health Department, Chris Gilliam, said Wednesday that the Brooke Haven nursing home has 32 active cases of COVID-19. And Gilliam confirmed that the coronavirus is now inside every nursing home in Howell County.

We reached out to every licensed nursing home, assisted living and residential care facility in the county – 12 in all, based on Missouri's Department of Health and Senior Services website – to ask how it's going in their efforts to protect residents and staff.

Many declined to share details, but one nursing home, NHC HealthCare West Plains, pointed us to their COVID dashboard, which is updated daily.

According to their data, there are 25 patients with COVID-19 right now in NHC HealthCare West Plains.  13 patients have recovered, but nearly just as many, a dozen residents, have died from COVID.

And those high active case counts are troubling because many rural hospitals are already straining to meet the swelling volume of COVID patients in their regions. See our reporting about that here.

Facilities try to prevent both COVID and emotional isolation

One striking number on NHC’s dashboard is how many of the nursing home's employees have tested positive:  it’s 28. And as officials say COVID is now in all Howell County nursing homes, we found there are at least a couple of assisted living facilities where the coronavirus appears to have been kept at bay so far.

One of them is South View Health Care, where Maryann Watson works as a nurse for the facility’s 30 residents. When asked why she thinks they've been spared, she launches into a lengthy regimen of prevention.

“We [check] temperature. We wear our masks. We continuously have Germ-X on top of our, you know, washing. The residents will wash before every meal. We have kept them separated in the dining room,” Watson said.

The list of preventative routines goes on and on—including disinfecting every doorknob and hand railing three times a day.  Other facilities have adopted similar measures, with many posting their practices to their websites.

Watson says she’s extremely careful at work—but she's also vigilant at home or if she has to run an errand.  And that caution is part of caring for her residents, she said.

“That is a worry. When we, the staff are leaving and going home and going about our normal lives, we don't know what we can come in contact with,” Watson said.

Like other rural parts of Missouri, West Plains and Howell County don't require masks in public and don't do much to limit the size of gatherings, even though the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC, has said both measures would significantly slow the spread of this virus.

Watson said her facility has not lifted its ban on visitors like some facilities have. Even family members can't come inside the facility.

And this is the downside to such strict rules: the residents are hurting emotionally.

“And to be there for them—that is really what I feel a lot of them are lacking. You know, everything has changed since all this happened. There isn't a lot of caring,” Watson said.

Watson said rural communities like hers can still find creative ways to show nursing home residents they care through cards, letters, signs or gifts. But she said maybe the best thing people can do to care for nursing home residents right now is to take the coronavirus seriously.

Dr. Lisa Hall leads the gerontology program at Missouri State University.

“As an educator, I would just encourage everyone to think of it this way:  if this pandemic were affecting children the most, what would we do to protect them? And would it be different than what we're doing to protect our old adults at this time?” Hall said.

Meanwhile, back at Brook Haven Nursing Home, Lin Waterhouse says her husband, Dave, has been feeling a bit poorly and had a fever this week.

She said since March, she's already seen five or six obituaries of people from her husband's nursing home in the local newspaper.

Abby Rae Hess, an editor at the West Plains Daily Quill, said she’s noticed that many people from West Plains are dying far away from home. She said Wednesday's paper needed two full pages of newsprint just for obituaries, which Hess described as “surreal.”

Copyright 2021 KSMU. To see more, visit KSMU.


As the Journalist-in-Residence at Missouri State University, Jennifer teaches undergraduate and graduate students, oversees a semester-long, team reporting project, and contributes weekly stories to KSMU Radio in the area of public affairs journalism.
Josh Conaway is a second year student at Missouri State University studying political science and Spanish. He works as news reporter and announcer for KSMU. His favorite part of working for KSMU is meeting a wide variety of interesting people for stories. He has a passion for history and running.