Echo Village is a seniors’ facility in Port Alberni, B.C. (SUSAN QUINN/ Alberni Valley News)

Port Alberni seniors’ homes working hard to keep COVID-19 at bay

Echo Village, Fir Park Village take drastic steps to prevent coronavirus outbreak

Measures designed to keep coronavirus out of long-term care homes in the Alberni Valley are working, says the man who looks after Echo Village and Fir Park Village.

While the strict rules are painful for family members who are used to visiting residents in the homes, they are necessary to keep COVID-19 at bay, says Joe McQuaid, executive director for the Alberni-Clayoquot Continuing Care Society.

READ: B.C.’s senior home staff measures show results in COVID-19 battle

“This is ground zero for coronavirus,” he said of seniors’ homes. “We’re screening people; no visitors are allowed in; only those essential to care if someone is in palliative care.

“We’re hoping, we’re praying, we’re looking at ways of preventing it from coming into our homes.”

Both homes usually share staff, but early on in the pandemic “we realized cross-contamination was an issue,” so staff were isolated to either Echo Village or Fir Park Village—they are not permitted to work for more than one home.

“We put that into place before the ministerial order to separate our staff,” McQuaid said.

“What has been a lesson learned from all three of those early outbreaks in the Lower Mainland is staff can bring (COVID-19) into those sites.”

There are 66 residents living at Echo Village and 67 at Fir Park Village. McQuaid credits his staff—some of whom have worked at both homes for 25 years—with handling the pandemic so expertly.

“When we’re faced with a crisis like this, staff really step up,” he said.

Several measures have been put into place. Social distancing at meal times has been handled by only allowing two residents per table, and spreading out tables into the lounge areas.

The community bathing program, which had 15-17 community members coming to the homes for a bath and to give caregivers a couple hours’ respite, has been put on hold. The day program, comprised of 18 people coming into the homes to attend programs, was also halted at the beginning of March—both moves to prevent anyone possibly infected with COVID-19 from coming into the homes.

Programming staff have been redeployed to housekeeping to step up cleaning and sanitization in both homes, McQuaid said. Only six staff members are allowed in the staff room at one time.

McQuaid is the only person who goes between both Echo Village and Fir Park Village, because he is responsible for administration for both homes. He is based in Fir Park, and will go as far as his office inside the front door of Echo Village—and he doesn’t get involved with resident care, he said.

Even inter-home deliveries have been affected, as staff keep it to a minimum. Items are also sanitized on arrival, and deliveries are now done outside the facilities’ doors, McQuaid said.

He thanked the family members who have had to stay away from both homes, saying people quickly respected the new rules. Fir Park and Echo Village had up to 100 people per day coming into the homes for visiting, and that number dropped to almost nothing in less than two weeks.

READ: COVID-19: Here are the measures being taken at B.C. care homes

The new rules have been difficult for family members, but understandable, says Toosha Houle. Her mother, Bertha Castelyns, 96, lives at Echo Village. “It’s sad we can’t visit her,” Houle said. “We understand it’s to keep them safe. It’s a big difference for me because I visit almost every day.”

READ: Port Alberni family thanks long-term care workers with face shield donation

Houle said the family has communicated with Castelyns, “waving through the window and throwing kisses. One of the staff will bring her to the window…to see her beautiful smile on the other side is all rewarding.”

She thanks the staff for everything they have done to help keep the family connected while they can’t visit the facility.

“They have an amazing team there. We’re so fortunate to have that type of facility here in Port Alberni where they all care,” she said.

“We’re lucky there’s no COVID-19 in there. Hearing they’re still safe is quite a relief.”

Both Echo Village and Fir Park Village have been dealing with an outbreak of RSV in the past few weeks, but that has cleared up now. Tsawaayuus (Rainbow Gardens) also experienced an outbreak of RSV, according to Island Health’s active outbreak list. Once an outbreak is finished, the facility no longer shows up on the list.

No cases of COVID-19 have been reported in long-term care facilities in the Alberni Valley.

McQuaid said his staff regards the COVID-19 threat as “more of a marathon.”

McQuaid said once the pandemic is declared over, “we would go back to having one whole staff list for both homes.” The advantage for him is having a combined casual pool of health-care staff. The public would be surprised to hear how many health-care people are working at three and four long-term care homes, he added.

Isobel Mackenzie, B.C.’s seniors’ advocate, said after the pandemic comes to an end, the fault lines in terms of how care homes handle outbreaks like this will be apparent.

“When this is over we probably will be looking at how we are going to — in the future — not find ourselves with some of the frustrations that we have at the moment.”

British Columbia’s health minister, Adrian Dix, said he will examine the feasibility of having dedicated staff at each care facility going forward. “There are lessons to be learned,” he said in late March.

“This is some of the work we have been doing over the last number of years with employers and unions alike. We didn’t need this pandemic to know the work that is done by people in long-term care facilities is some of the most important work.

“I can’t imagine more important work in society.”

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Facilitators and volunteers from the Java Mentorship group at Echo Village in Port Alberni join invited guests to celebrate the 12-week mark of the pilot program, which pairs volunteers with seniors. The program received government funding to expand to Fir Park Village too. SUSAN QUINN PHOTO

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