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Residents and staff 'bubble up' at some nursing homes to keep COVID-19 out

Staffers are living on site to keep from bringing the coronavirus into their facilities. And it seems to be working.

WASHINGTON — COVID-19 has inflicted a horrifying toll on nursing homes across the country.
More than 28,000 patients and workers have died. It is being seen as one-third of all the deaths nationwide — according to an analysis by The New York Times.

But some nursing homes have seen zero cases of the novel coronavirus. So what are they doing right?

At a handful of nursing homes around the country, managers are trying something unusual. It's called on-site caregiving.

The owner of Shady Oaks Assisted Living in Connecticut has moved himself and 17 caregivers into RVs and one home on site at their facility, and isolated staff and patients to keep the virus from getting in.

"So we call it the bubble. We now have zero people entering or exiting the living areas at our home," said Tyson Belanger on a video he made encouraging other facilities to consider something similar.

Shady Oaks has had zero cases of COVID-19 among its residents and staff.
Health data for the rest of the state shows 60% of the deaths in Connecticut have been nursing home residents. "60%!," said Belanger, a Marine veteran and Harvard PhD. "If there was a medication that would have reduced the death rate of COVID by 60%, we would have bought it."

Credit: AP
Justin and Crystal Craft enjoy their weekly dinner date on opposite sides of a fence surrounding the Park Springs senior community, where Justin runs the food and beverage department, Thursday, April 30, 2020, in Stone Mountain, Ga. Since the end of March, Park Springs has had employees live on its 61-acre campus instead of commuting from home _ an unusual approach, even as nursing homes have been among the hardest-hit places by the coronavirus. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)

At the Armed Forces Retirement Home in D.C., they've had one case of coronavirus among the staff, but zero cases among patients.

"We went above and beyond with the contact tracing, and that has made a huge difference for us," said Lisa Hershman, the Pentagon's chief management officer.

She is not ready yet to bubble up the staff with the residents at the retirement home — she wants more data first. But she is willing to consider it. 

"I think this is a time to try some things. And to make sure every step of the way, we're taking the best possible care of our residents, and our staff," she said.

Putting a bubble around nursing homes is expensive. Belanger is paying his certified nurse assistants $15,000 a month, and his nurses $20,000 a month.
But he said it's worth it to save the lives of our seniors.

"It really ought to be the government that’s helping us because this is a public good. The staff is not getting sick. The residents are not getting sick," Belanger said. And they're not spreading it in the community.

The owner and staff at Shady Oaks Assisted Living have been self-quarantined on site for almost two months now. They're hoping to come out soon — when the peak has passed. And only then with strict measures to continue to keep the virus out.

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