Jean Belton moved into the Tribute at the Glen in January 2020, expecting to comfortably settle into her new retirement home and make new friends.
“I was hoping to meet new people and share new experiences, new ideas and that sort of thing,” Belton said about her move into the Woodbridge facility.
Unexpectedly needing surgery shortly after moving in, she left, and as she went through recovery, it set in that things weren’t going to be the same when she returned. “I was disappointed when I realized what had happened, that it wasn’t an individual thing, that it wasn’t a local thing, that everyone was going to be affected by it.”
For Belton and other long-term care facility residents in Prince William County and elsewhere, things quickly shut down last March as the COVID-19 pandemic spread. Facilities closed to the outside world, and, even inside, interaction was limited. The Tribute fared better than many others during the worst of the pandemic, with no deaths reported. And by the time a big surge in cases occurred over the winter, the facility was so accustomed to the heightened protocols that another wave wasn’t felt inside.
Belton, a retired special needs educator from California who moved to the area to be closer to her daughter after her husband died, told InsideNoVa that things at least felt secure, if less adventurous than she’d like.
“I was recovering from surgery, so I was at a very low point anyway. It kind of took me a while to reconnect with things here,” Belton said. “Staff members were very active in talking to us and kind of affirming us with anxieties, so I ultimately found it to be a viable situation. We were in a bubble; we were very protected.”
Now that most residents are fully vaccinated, the bubble is starting to pop in the best way. Belton said in addition to missing friends and family, one of the things she’s missed most is a sense of spontaneity. Without the ability to freely come and go, everything became more routine.
“Maybe in an afternoon, after doing the regular routine, maybe doing something spontaneous like going for a drive or going to the mall, those are the things I’m looking forward to. Or running to see a friend,” she said.
Tribute, where more than 90% of residents have now been vaccinated, is one of many area facilities where rules and restrictions are loosening up and where residents are now allowed both visitors and trips to the outside world.
Other than in individual apartments, masks are still required to be worn in the facility, but the routine testing is over. The facility hasn’t had a documented case of COVID-19 since November.
“Residents that have received both vaccinations and it is at least 14 days since their second shot will be able to freely move about the community and go on outings without the need to quarantine,” Martin Brown, executive director of Tribute, said in an email. “Screening upon re-entry to the community will be required to watch for any signs or symptoms of the virus.”
A small but significant moment in a return to normal will take place this week, when Belton is able to invite her daughter inside, and they can embrace. Previously, her daughter would come from Manassas with household supplies and groceries, but the two could only see each other through Belton’s window while they talked on the phone.
“It’s going to be nice; it's going to be very nice to be able to have that close contact, be able to talk to her,” Belton said. “That’s going to be rewarding.”
Last week, the Virginia Department of Health announced survey results showing that over 90% of residents in the state’s nursing homes and senior care facilities had been vaccinated, although about 35% of employees and staff said they weren’t interested in being vaccinated.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has relaxed its recommendations for nursing homes and other congregate settings, saying that managed visitations should be allowed with symptom checks for visitors. Still, the governing body recommends continued focus on “source control,” which mostly amounts to masks for residents when they’re out of their own living units and for staff members at all times.
Dana Parsons, the vice president of LeadingAge Virginia, an association of nonprofit senior facilities, said, “Residents are … hopeful and excited to be getting back to some semblance of normalcy. Overall, there is a spirit of gratitude within the aging services industry.”
Douglas Robinson, 65, has been living at Birmingham Green in Manassas since last fall. He arrived after the worst of the facility’s outbreak, but the campus was still trying to be as secure from the virus as possible.
During the spring and early summer of 2020, Birmingham Green had one of the worst outbreaks in the state, with over 130 cases and 35 deaths from the virus. By the time Robinson arrived, he said, some of the tightest restrictions were being lifted following the summer spike in COVID cases and more group activities were available in the facility. When the winter surge came around – by far the virus’ deadliest period in Virginia and the country – those restrictions were reinstated.
“There were no outside visits, very little groups and they kept everything in the room,” he said. “You’d do a lot of things in the room instead of being with people. I personally would much rather be with people.”
Since the facility held its second vaccine clinic, it has allowed some indoor visits for residents. In the facility’s most recent newsletter update to families, CEO Denise Chadwick Wright said the staff is working with the health department to obtain more vaccines for incoming residents.
“We are currently offering virtual, window, and outdoor visitation arrangements across the campus. In addition, the nursing home has resumed indoor visitation; however, please note that while the facility will permit structured indoor visitation to residents, we continue to recommend and highly encourage that visits occur outdoors except for compassionate care situations.”
At some point, Robinson said, he’s looking forward to showing his sister – who has helped bring him food and other things from the outside world – the inside of his room. When he received his second vaccine dose, Robinson said, he could finally see better times ahead.
“Absolutely, relief. Just the thought of being able to do more things, it’s great,” Robinson said. “It’s a godsend in a way. I know I was very appreciative of being able to think about, you know, better days. Because that’s kind of a coping skill on its own.”