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Harbor Hill holds its own against COVID-19

By Fran Gonzalez | Apr 28, 2020
Photo by: Carolyn Zachary Harbor Hill.

Belfast — Jeannie Lucas says it is hard not seeing her mom, a resident at Harbor Hill nursing home, because of restrictions to protect residents from the coronavirus.

City says thank you

Belfast Mayor Eric Sanders delivered over $3,500 in provisions and monetary donations to Tall Pines and Harbor Hill Friday, April 24, to support their workers during the continuing health crisis.

“We had a chance to speak with staff at Tall Pines and Harbor Hill regarding the delivery of the donations. We were each able to articulate how much we appreciated each other,” Sanders said. “We lifted their spirits, and they lifted our spirits more.”

At the April 21 Belfast City Council meeting, the council unanimously approved the plan for the donations.

Tall Pines received a donation of $1,000 to its kitchen to provide meals for the staff, a practice adopted in response to the virus outbreak, in addition to a donation of $1,000 to the Employee Sunshine Fund to be used for staff appreciation however deemed best by employees.

Harbor Hill received a donation of $1,000 to the Employee Excellence Committee for staff provisions of their choice. Both facilities received care packages containing more than $250 in cases of bottled water, juice and individually packaged snack food. Belfast Hannaford donated fruit for the care packages, which included letters of appreciation from the mayor and all city employees.

“The City of Belfast is grateful for all of the time, energy and expertise you and your staff have given to all of your patients for decades," one note read. “Thank you for your exceptional work and service to our community. We are so incredibly thankful.”

Her 94-year-old mother, Mary Lucas, has been at the facility for 10 years, she said, longer than any other resident on her floor. “My mom has long outlived the average lifespan of someone living in a long-term care facility,” she said.

“She doesn’t really understand what’s going on,” Lucas said, but she wonders why no one is coming to visit her anymore.

About two weeks ago, Mary fell out of bed and fractured four ribs.

Lucas said the nursing home staff calls anytime her mother has any issues at all and quickly notified her of the situation. She was so impressed by how the facility handled her mom’s fall, she wrote the administration and staff a letter thanking them for their response.

At the hospital Mary was treated and released to the nursing side of Harbor Hill, where she spent four days recovering. Long-term facilities typically have certified nursing assistants when residents don’t require skilled care, Lucas said, and noted there is always a nurse available at Harbor Hill.

The CNAs work long hours and are underpaid, she said, adding, “I really do think they need to be commended for what they did.”

Lucas said she finds "worrisome" recent reports of the COVID-19 virus proliferating at long-term care facilities, one of which is located at the other end of town.

“Do I ever worry?” she asked. “Of course.”

“I feel for Tall Pines,” she said, referring to a recent Portland Press Herald article about an Alzheimer’s patient at the facility not receiving proper care. Lucas, who has a background in the medical profession, said working with dementia or Alzheimer’s patients can be very challenging.

“A person suffering from a classic form of the disease can be very verbal and aggressive,” she said. “My mom is actually the opposite of that. She is lovely — very grateful and always saying thank you. She is relatively easy for the staff to care for.”

Lucas said the care at Harbor Hill is not perfect, but added, “I have no regrets, nothing to complain about.” Some of the staff at the facility have been there for more than 10 years, according to Lucas, “which is a testament to the facility, especially considering burnout syndrome.”

“Every time I call, they get back and give me a report of how my mom is doing,” she said. “I can talk to her as well. I usually visit my mom on the weekends, but have gone to the facility during the week unannounced, and all I can say is ‘God bless them.’”

Speaking about the working conditions, Lucas said the facility has no air conditioning, and sometimes in the summer, “it is brutal, but the staff is still pleasant and smiling.”

“I’m sure it’s stressful for people there,” she said. “People do the best they can, and we have been lucky nothing has happened at Harbor Hill.”

Lori Mayer, communications manager for Harbor Hill's corporate partner, Genesis HealthCare, said Harbor Hill has been doing everything possible and everything medically known to contain the virus and protect its patients, residents and employees.

The East Belfast facility has 40 skilled nursing beds and 45 assisted living beds and is currently approximately 89% occupied, according to Mayer.

Steps such as screening residents and patients for symptoms three times daily, screening and taking temperatures of all staff upon entry to the building, requiring all staff to wear personal protective equipment  and mandating visitation restrictions, except for exceptional circumstances such as end-of-life situations, have all aided in keeping the virus at bay.

Also all outside medical appointments have been canceled, except for medically necessary, time-sensitive and life-saving treatments, such as dialysis and chemotherapy. “To make things easier for families,” Mayer said, “we have implemented the ability for families and loved ones to perform video conferencing calls using Zoom technology.

“Fortunately, we’ve been able to maintain an adequate supply of PPE — standard face masks, gowns, gloves and N95 respirators — by shifting supplies among our facilities and resourceful sourcing,” Mayer said. “We have also been following federal guidelines to reuse and extend the use of face masks. However, as this pandemic expands, this is not a sustainable solution.”

Mayer said the facility has also been able to maintain adequate staffing levels throughout the pandemic. “Our employees are coming to work each and every day to care for their patients and residents,” she said. “They are the true heroes during this pandemic.”

Charndra Michaud, resident services director at Tall Pines, said previously the facility's management company, North Country Associates, along with Waldo County General Hospital, has provided the facility with additional nurses, CNAs and medical assistants to respond to the outbreak there. Four National Guardsmen were also dispatched April 20 to augment staff at the facility and help with infection control.

In addition to staffing, Michaud said, Tall Pines is in daily communication with the Maine CDC and the Department of Health and Human Services to ensure it is taking appropriate steps to contain the spread of COVID-19 while caring for residents. The steps include universal testing, isolating or grouping together residents who have tested positive in private rooms or areas, and minimizing the number of interactions among staff and residents.

The Republican Journal contacted other long-term care facilities in Waldo County to see how they were faring during the pandemic.

After a lengthy interview, officials at the Frankfort Assisted Living facility decided against releasing any information to the media. Two calls were made to Bayview Manor in Searsport, where officials there hung up the phone twice, and a call to an official at Boardman Cottage on Islesboro was unanswered as of press time.

Belfast Mayor Eric Sanders delivers a cartload of care packages to Harbor Hill April 24. (Courtesy of: City of Belfast)
A sign at Harbor Hill in Belfast thanks the long-term care facility's staff for its dedication. (Photo by: Carolyn Zachary)
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