‘It’s changed everything’: Berkeley nursing homes adapt to COVID-19 pandemic

Berkeley Pines Care Center.
Berkeley Pines Care Center, one of the city's skilled nursing facilities, faces increased expenses from testing and personal protective equipment, in addition to challenges to disease mitigation.

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While one of the main focuses during the COVID-19 pandemic is staying safe in public, Berkeley’s skilled nursing facilities are occupied with keeping residents safe indoors.

Since the beginning of the national outbreak, visitors — including family members — have been suspended from nursing facilities until further notice. In the meantime, staff members must keep residents healthy and entertained while facing additional financial costs related to COVID-19 mitigation.

“It’s changed everything,” said KJ Page, a nurse and administrator at Chaparral House. “There are no visitors, no hugs, nobody holding anybody’s hands, lots of masks and PPE and lots of distancing.”

According to Page, Chaparral House has a “strict protocol” in place to prevent the spread of COVID-19. This includes the use of personal protective equipment, sanitizing high-touch surfaces and routine testing of staff and residents, among other things.

Though visitors aren’t allowed indoors, Page said Chaparral House recognizes that it is difficult for families to be apart, so the facility has made use of its patio area.

Visitors can sit outside with a mask, 6 feet away from the building, and talk to residents through a screen or on the phone if they are hard of hearing. The house also has a special visiting protocol for the families of residents who are “actively dying” so that family members can visit them at the end of their lives.

Without family interaction, nursing facility staff are tasked with keeping residents calm during this unprecedented time, according to Page. She added that while some residents can’t understand the present situation, others understand completely and are just as upset as any of the staff.

“It’s the people in the middle that don’t quite remember and you have to tell them every 10 minutes why you have a mask on, where’s their daughter, why can’t they go outside,” Page said. “If there’s no short-term memory, it’s kind of like a new crisis every 10 minutes.”

Despite this, staff members at Chaparral House have been able to keep residents occupied with silly hats, props and show tunes, and only one resident has tested positive for COVID-19. According to Page, that was months ago and the resident has tested negative on every test since then.

Page added that most nursing facilities have the same precautionary measures in place, and that whether or not there is an outbreak is a “luck of the draw.”

Other facilities, however, are not as lucky as Chaparral House.

At Berkeley Pines Care Center, there are currently 14 positive cases of COVID-19, though administrator Al Macasieb said a portion of those residents will be cleared in the next few days.

Contrary to reports by the California Department of Public Health, or CDPH, the facility has had no deaths that can be directly attributed to COVID-19, according to Macasieb. He added that the facility is working closely with the city public health department and CDPH to ensure it stays that way.

Berkeley Pines Care Center is currently working with CDPH to correct the discrepancy in reported COVID-19 deaths.

In addition to disease mitigation, both facilities are dealing with increased expenses from personal protective equipment to testing.

Chaparral House is also issuing paid leave for symptomatic or exposed staff, has raised salaries by $1 an hour and pays for transportation to and from work if needed. According to Page, these expenses result in about $100,000 of additional costs.

Berkeley Pines Care Center also distributes grocery care packages to single-income employees on a regular basis, according to Macasieb.

“I’m very proud of our team. They have risen to the occasion and the call of duty,” Macasieb said. “Our residents are our family.”

Contact Veronica Roseborough at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @v_roseborough.