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Fredericksburg-area facilities for seniors ramp up efforts to ward off virus

FREDERICKSBURG— With a spray bottle of disinfectant in one hand and a cloth in the other, Helen Shelton went to work, wiping down handrails, doorknobs and any other surfaces residents touch regularly.

She’s a member of housekeeping at Poet’s Walk Fredericksburg, a home for residents with dementia issues. Like staff members at other such facilities in the region and nationwide, Shelton is ramping up efforts to keep the coronavirus—and any other infectious illnesses—at bay.

“We don’t want anybody sick, and I don’t want to get sick, either,” Shelton said.

Fears of what impact COVID-19, the abbreviation for the new coronavirus disease, may have on elderly residents whose immune systems already are compromised were heightened last week after seven residents died in a skilled care facility in Kirkland, Washington. They’re among 12 people in the United States and more than 3,400 across the globe who have died from the virus since January.

More than 100,000 people worldwide are sick with the disease.

Staff members at area facilities are ramping up precautionary measures in wake of the outbreak. At Poet’s Walk, workers wipe down residents’ wheelchairs at night, and, at staff meetings three times a day, emphasize the staff’s need for constant hand-washing, said Administrator Diana Marks.

“I mean, everybody’s freaking out about it,” Marks said, stressing that prevention comes down to basic measures. “Don’t touch other peoples’ hands, don’t touch things, don’t touch your T-zone [your eyes, nose and mouth], wash your hands, sneeze into your elbow.”

Sandy Bowling, director of nursing at Hughes Home in Fredericksburg, said the same, with one addition.

“It really is just standard precautions, and a lot of prayer,” she said, adding that facility workers are just as nervous about the flu or a resilient strain of respiratory infection that’s been around since Christmas. “Any of it, for these people, is very dangerous.”

Bowling said about seven staff members and residents have tested positive for flu since the holidays. If residents, workers or their children show any signs of illness, she recommends they see a doctor and get tested for the flu, then take an antiviral medicine such as Tamiflu.

But those fearful of COVID-19 can’t get tested at their local doctor’s office or urgent care clinic. Virginia’s state lab, the Division of Consolidated Laboratory Services, “has received a very small number of test kits from the [Centers for Disease Control] and has a limited capacity for testing,” according to the Virginia Department of Health.

In the absence of tests, the VDH suggested that health care workers rely on various criteria to identify those most likely to be infected with the coronavirus:

» Those who had contact with someone confirmed to have the virus, then exhibited symptoms of a respiratory illness.

» Those who traveled to an affected country, then had symptoms.

» Residents of nursing homes or long-term care facilities with fever or other symptoms of respiratory illnesses who tested negative for flu or other respiratory problems and have “no alternative diagnosis.”

Any tests for the coronavirus that are taken in Virginia will be processed at the state lab instead of CDC facilities in Atlanta, which means quicker results, said State Epidemiologist Dr. Lilian Peake, who’s leading the state’s COVID-19 management team.

This week, the American Health Care Association sent guidelines to nursing-home facilities after the deaths at the Life Care Center of Kirkland. Because COVID-19 spreads from person-to-person through droplets in the air, just as the flu does, the AHCA suggested centers use the same protocol as with an outbreak of the flu.

The guidelines stressed diligent hand-washing; reviewing plans to isolate patients who are sick to one wing or section of the building; reminding staff and volunteers to stay home if they have symptoms; and asking family members who are sick to find other ways to visit with their loved ones, such as through Skype, phone calls and emails.

“Being a bedroom community [of Washington], we have a lot of people who work in D.C. and have to travel, said Karen Dufort, director of resident care at Poet’s Walk. “And if they do that, we recommend they stay away from their loved ones for at least 14 days after they travel. It kind of prevents bringing anything into the community.”

Signs at Hughes Homes remind visitors it’s still flu season, and “if you’re sick, please don’t visit,” Bowling said. “Our families have been very agreeable.”

There have been no confirmed cases of coronavirus in Virginia, but state officials have stressed that agencies are focused on prevention and preparation.

“The risk to Virginians right now is low,” Peake stated in a press release on Wednesday. “But this is a dynamic situation that is changing daily.”

President Donald Trump on Friday signed a $8.3 billion emergency coronavirus spending bill. Virginia will get $13.3 million of that amount to cover its costs of preparations, U.S. Sens. Mark R. Warner and Tim Kaine of Virginia said this week.

“While Virginia is fortunate that we have not experienced an outbreak, this bill sets aside $350 million that will be available to local authorities if our region does get hit,” the senators stated in a press release. “It also provides $500 million for masks, medication, protective equipment and other much-needed medical supplies that can be distributed directly to hospitals and local health care providers.”

All those protective items are in short supply, according to the American Health Care Association, because of increased demand and decreased exports from China, India and Taiwan.

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425


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