SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — On March 11, 2020 Avera Prince of Peace was one of the first nursing homes in South Dakota to announce no visitors would be allowed.
A few days later, Gov. Kristi Noem called for public K-12 schools to close and for all nursing homes in the state to restrict visitors. Looking back at those first few days of the COVID-19 pandemic in South Dakota, Prince of Peace administrator Justin Hinker said the decision to not allow visitors was “unprecedented.”
“It was a bit of a shock to everyone,” said Hinker, who has been working at Prince of Peace since 2008.
Fast forward to March 2021, a majority of residents and staff have received the COVID-19 vaccine and visitors are now allowed back inside the facility. Residents can have two visitors at a time during visiting hours of 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Visitors must complete a health screening process and wear a mask, but they are once again allowed to meet face-to-face with loved ones.
“It’s so great to have family come back into the facility,” Hinker said. “Everything that I’ve heard is positive. It’s been really nice to have visitors back in the facility. It feels like we’re getting back to our new normal now.”
The most recent federal guidance from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention calls for “responsible indoor visitation at all times and for all residents, regardless of vaccination status of the resident, or visitor, unless certain scenarios arise.”
In June, Prince of Peace started allowing family visits with scheduled times through a visitor booth complete with plexiglass, speaker system and microphones. When weather allowed 6-feet, socially-distanced visits could be arranged outside, but visiting loved ones was still being restricted in many ways.
“That was probably the single most difficult thing we had to navigate — was the family visitation,” Hinker said. “To some degree, residents are isolated in the first place and then to isolate it even further, made it that much tougher. We did the best we could.”
The mood started to change in mid-December when residents and staff at Avera Prince of Peace were part of the first groups to receive the COVID-19 vaccine. Hinker said turnout to receive the vaccine was high among both staff and residents and by the end of January he said progress to curb the spread of COVID-19 was being made.
Along with vaccines, Hinker pointed to COVID-19 cases declining in Minnehaha and Lincoln county along with the drop in the county’s positivity rate to help make the decision to allow visitors.
During November, when new cases, active cases, hospitalizations and positivity rates were at their highest rates in the community, Prince of Peace experienced an uptick in cases, hospitalizations and deaths as well.
“When we were in those peak times, I think that translated over into the nursing home,” Hinker said.
In total, Prince of Peace has reported eight deaths related to COVID-19, according to the data collected by CMS. The facility, which reports a max of 114 nursing home beds, jumped from three deaths to eight from mid-October to the end of November.
“The coronavirus has no boundaries,” Hinker said. “You can do everything right and still have the virus get in the building. What we stressed upon staff was to continue to do the right things — PPE, hand hygiene, good infection control procedures.”
Hinker said while it’s impossible to know what worse outcomes might have happened, he highlighted a treatment triumph in late October. That’s when 10 residents, who tested positive, completed monoclonal antibody transfusions. The treatment prevented hospitalization for all 10 cases, Hinker said. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration would go on to emergency-authorize monoclonal antibody treatments in November.
“We’re still learning every day,” Hinker said. “It has been a steep learning curve. Staff have become very resilient. They know things will change by the day or by the minute.”
Now with visitors allowed more face-to-face time with loved ones, the future challenge for Prince of Peace and other nursing homes remains the unknown. Hinker pointed to three specific unknowns about COVID-19 as 2021 continues:
- No. 1: Unknowns about COVID-19 variants and future variants.
- No. 2: If vaccinated persons can still transmit the virus.
- No. 3: If the COVID-19 vaccine will work long-term or if additional vaccines will be needed.
“The challenge is continuing to learn, find out new things about the virus and educate ourselves as best we can,” Hinker said. “It’s been a long, hard road but I think we’ve done a good job of moving along that road.”