At Senior Home, Staff Stays Put 24-7 to Stop Virus Spread

ATLANTA — As girls, Nadia Williams and her sister spent countless hours imagining their weddings. Now 30, Williams helped her younger sibling plan her big day, but when it came on Friday, she couldn’t be at her side as maid of honor. Instead, she put on a sequined dress, pulled her hair back, held a bouquet, and watched the ceremony alone, via Zoom, from a community for older adults.

Williams is among about 70 employees who are sheltering in place alongside more than 500 residents at an upscale assisted-living facility just outside Atlanta. Since the end of March, Park Springs has had employees live on its 61-acre campus instead of commute from home to protect residents from the coronavirus — an unusual approach, even as nursing homes have been among the hardest-hit places by the pandemic.

“Most facilities are so short on space,” said Betsy McCaughey, of the Committee to Reduce Infection Deaths, a nonprofit that provides guidelines for preventing coronavirus at nursing homes. She lauded the idea of keeping staff on site, noting it also protects workers’ families and communities.

The approach has been used elsewhere: In France, staff at a nursing home ended a 47-day quarantine Monday. In Connecticut, the owner of an assisted-living facility that is housing staff on the premises, Tyson Belanger, has called for government funding to help more senior communities do so.

In Georgia, Williams, a health care administrator, said her duty to the residents came first, even though it meant missing the wedding.

“I wish I was there, definitely,” she said, choking up in a video interview with The Associated Press. “I wish I was able to help her get ready.”

Park Springs’ lockdown started after four employees and a resident tested positive for the virus. Most nursing homes have limited visitors, and many screen people for fevers or ask whether they’ve had contact with anyone with the virus. Park Springs’ administrators said they feared those strategies might not be enough.

“We knew we had to do something drastic,” said Donna Moore, chief operating officer of the company that owns Park Springs.

In some ways, Park Springs is more like a resort than a traditional elder-care facility. Residents — some needing no medical care — are spread out in apartment buildings, homes and duplexes on the gated campus near the base of Stone Mountain, a giant rock formation that lures tourists with a trail to the summit and an enormous carving of Confederate leaders.

Residents pay an entrance fee that can top $500,000, with monthly fees ranging from about $2,500 to over $6,000, depending on the type, size and location of their home and whether they live alone or as a couple, according to Park Springs’ website. The median cost of a one-bedroom unit at an assisted-living facility in Georgia last year was just over $3,300 monthly, according to a survey by insurance giant Genworth Financial.

Some facilities might not have the amenities or financial resources to keep staff on campus, said Charlene Harrington, a professor emeritus of nursing at the University of California, San Francisco.

“If it’s a lovely place, maybe the workers wouldn’t mind staying there,” she said.

Park Springs has a gym, tree-lined walking trails to a lake, a steakhouse and an art studio. Employees can use the gym, and administrators have organized karaoke, bingo and Easter dinner for them. They’re also paying those living on site more _ a decision made after volunteers had committed to stay, COO Moore said.

Those employees represent a fraction of Park Springs’ normal 300-person staff. Another 30 or so are working from home, but the majority have been furloughed.

Employees’ on-site logistics have required sacrifice. Moore sleeps on an air mattress in a tent she set up in a community hall. Her 18-year-old daughter, Megan, texts recordings of her singing to keep her mom’s spirits up.

For Justin Craft, who runs Park Springs’ food service, there have been no returns home for family dinners on a table set by his 12-year-old son.

Instead, he and his wife have weekly date nights and dinners with their boys separated by a fence on campus. On Thursday, she brought takeout from one of their favorite restaurants. He pulled his food under the gate, and she grabbed a small bottle of wine he’d left on a fence post. They sat at tables about 15 feet apart on opposite sides of the fence and chatted.

“It’s our new normal, but we’re used to it by now,” Crystal Craft said.

For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, and the vast majority recover. But for some others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia or death. Nationwide, 20,000 deaths have been linked to virus outbreaks in nursing homes and other long-term care centers.

The Park Springs’ employees and resident who tested positive recovered. Since the lockdown, the facility has seen one additional case — a 96-year-old resident with dementia tested positive April 23. Park Springs allows visitors for residents who are near the end of their lives. A daughter and a caregiver saw the woman, and she died three days after her positive test.

On campus, employees’ workdays are longer, with expanded duties. Resident Kaffie McCullough, 74, teared up praising their efforts.

“I expect my family to jump in and help me out when something is somewhat of a crisis in my life. I don’t expect that from the people who are providing services for me,” she said.

Initially, Moore asked volunteering employees to stay on the property through the end of April. Now, she’s asked if they can stay longer, perhaps for all of May.

Moore left an open book on a table with a pen for her staff’s answers. When she returned, most had written: ”`I’m staying till the end.”

About the photo: Crystal Craft places a bag of food at the gate for her husband, Justin, before sitting down for their weekly dinner date on opposite sides of a fence surrounding the Park Springs senior community, where Justin runs the food and beverage department, Thursday, April 30, 2020, in Stone Mountain, Ga. Since the end of March, Park Springs has had employees live on its 61-acre campus instead of commuting from home — an unusual approach, even as nursing homes have been among the hardest-hit places by the coronavirus. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)