Charles Morris staff, residents grappled with 10-day flu quarantine
Four confirmed cases of flu at the Charles Morris Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in mid-January closed the facility to visitors, stalled new admissions and necessitated restricting residents to their own units for about 10 days, according to Deborah Winn-Horvitz, president and CEO of the Jewish Association on Aging.
While the quarantine was lifted late last week, it posed challenges for staff and residents alike.
“It was a little bit rough,” said Gayle Block, a short-term resident at the facility, who is about 30 years younger than most of her neighbors there. “My mother couldn’t come visit me, and I couldn’t interact with my friends on the other floors. There was no bingo in the community room, and we were not allowed to go to the gift shop. Some of us did kind of sneak out a little bit, though.”
Still, Block made the best of things.
“I made friends on this floor,” she said. “And in the dining room, we got a jukebox, and I was the D.J. I sing and play air guitar, and more people started to come in. The jukebox made a difference.”
During the quarantine period, activities the residents look forward to such as religious services and visits from therapy dogs were canceled, and the beauty salon was closed.
“It was very hard,” said Maxine Sittsamer, who is a resident of Weinberg Towers, but who is living at Charles Morris temporarily. “I was new here, and people couldn’t come to see me. The mail wasn’t delivered. It was very restricted. My sister couldn’t come to do my laundry, and I had to eat lunch in my own room once or twice. It’s always nicer to be with other people.”
While the physical therapy room was closed, therapists came to the sitting area of Sittsamer’s unit, so “we still got some exercise,” she said.
“It’s a good thing for the telephone,” she added, “because you feel abandoned.”
Because visits were restricted, the staff at Charles Morris busily fielded an usually high volume of phone calls from relatives and friends checking in on their loved ones.
“I kept very busy in the last week, just trying to keep in touch and communicate with families,” said Sharyn Rubin, director of resident and community services. “I made calls for some residents, so they could talk to their families. I sent emails for one resident.”
Because residents were restricted to their own units for the duration of the quarantine, many got cabin fever,” Rubin said.
“A lot of the short-term people felt it more, but they could talk on the phone,” she said. “They were wistful, but thank God for telephones.”
For the most part, family members accepted the quarantine amicably.
“People who come on a regular basis were OK taking a couple days off,” Rubin said.
Despite the restrictions, exceptions were made when necessary.
“One family was coming in from California to see one of our residents who was on hospice,” said Winn-Horvitz. “We made an exception because we thought it was the right thing to do.”
Because the facility could not take in new residents during the quarantine, there was a major influx after it was lifted, Rubin said.
“The nurses will be very busy for the next day or so,” she said.
About 20 long-term care facilities in Allegheny County have confirmed flu cases since the season began in October.
Charles Morris followed guidelines set by the Center for Disease Control in imposing its quarantine, and in lifting it seven days past the date of the last positive case diagnosed, according to Dr. Elizabeth O’Keefe, the facility’s medical director.
The fact that the flu did not spread to more than four residents may be credited to the precautions that were employed by the medical staff.
“For anyone who presented with acute respiratory illness with or without fever, we sent a swab to the lab to check [for flu] and put them on Tamiflu,” she said. “We put every other patient in the building on half prophylactic doses of Tamiflu for 10 days instead of five.”
The four cases of flu were on two units in the facility. Residents in those units were confined to their rooms, O’Keefe said.
While over 90 percent of residents had flu shots this season, only about 60 percent of the staff had their vaccinations, she said.
“Obviously, it is extremely encouraged, but legally, it is difficult. You can’t make them have flu shots,” she said. “But clearly, anybody working in a health care environment should have a flu shot.”
Charles Morris is currently free from flu, but O’Keefe cautioned that it could happen again.
“I doubt we will get any cases of people who have had it, but if a staff member or a visitor comes in with the flu, it can start again,” she said.
“We do not want anybody here with a respiratory illness,” she stressed, “These are sick, old people, and they are clearly susceptible to it.”
(Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)