The Nursing Homes that Saw the Virus Coming and Stopped it at the Door
-Two Assisted Living Facilities in Catalunya that took strict protective hygienic measures in February have had zero contagions
María Sosa Troya
Polinyà | Madrid – 04 abr 2020 – 04:23 EDT
Don’t pray for her because she doesn’t care if she lives or dies—or so she says. Pray for her fellow residents, for her daughter who has a lot of life to live, for her grandchildren that she hasn’t seen in so many days. María Ruiz, 83 years old, has been a carpenter, bricklayer, carer, and cleaner. Now she is the defacto leader of this nursing home. She clasps her hands together and looks heavenward: “[I pray] that the bug doesn’t get in, because we are feeling fine here!”
The bug has remained outside the gates of Gravi Residence, in a suburb of Polinya (Barcelona). The barks of a dog in confinement and the smell of pine trees reach the small garden in the back of the Home. None of its 33 residents has been infected nor presented symptoms of the coronavirus. An oasis in the middle of the tragedy that has stalked senior centers across the country. “The garden, I take care it myself. The flowers, I planted them. This, as well,” said Maria, pointing to a small marble statue of the Virgin of the Rosary.
Perhaps the prayers of Maria, who was born in Granada and emigrated to Catalunya*, have protected the residence from the virus. Perhaps the honor belongs to the director, Iñaki Antón, who saw the storm coming and planned for it. On February 25, he returned on the AVE high speed train from a conference on addiction in Madrid with Andrés Rueda, director of another residence in Terrassa. In Spain the cases could be counted on one hand, and the alerts, still faint, focused on Tenerife, where the positive diagnosis of an Italian tourist forced the Hotel Costa Adeje to go into quarantine.
“We saw that this was going to come. We knew, from China, that it affected the elderly the most. ‘This is going to sweep away our grandparents, we have to block its entry,’ we thought,” explained Antón, who jokes with María about her supposed wishes to leave this world. “I am sure that if I put a axe over your head, you wouldn’t want me to let go.” [He/She] laughs heartily.** “We put a plan into motion to convert the residence into a bunker. So far we have achieved this goal.”
Even as the Generalitat [provincial government] had yet to give “any instructions” to the residences, Antón already had prepared his own preventative protocol. He managed to obtain protective gear on his own. “I was lucky. A son of one of our residents is a commercial painter and he brought us a box of masks.” The good ones, the FFP2 with filters, the ones the Government has bought for the medical workers. At the dollar store he bought gloves and raincoats.
On March 4, a 69 year old man from Valencia launched the macabre death count from Covid-19. On that day, Antón’s plan came into effect. Two pages with concrete instructions and an obsession: “Maintain aseptic conditions” in the home. The bunker, the island, the citadel: ensure that the virus does not enter, keep it outside. Vendors have to ring the bell and leave deliveries in the doorway; in other times María, unofficial receptionist, surely would have met them in person. Packages are disinfected by “spraying them with a 70% alcohol solution.”
They have even prohibited visits, family members could enter only if they had protective gear, collected from an informal network of friends and acquaintances. “I asked for supplies from the Generalitat. I am still waiting,” lamented Anton, critic of the narrow-mindedness of political leaders. “I am not an epidemiologist, but we could see this coming and they should have done something to stop it sooner.” Born in Bilbao, he is a gerontologist. He rejects the [government’s] bleak prognosis for senior centers. “We are a social service. We are here to take care of the elderly, not to cure them.” But he also criticizes the departure of personnel. “Faced with a challenge like this, I am very sorry but the nursing home workers cannot abandon the ship,” said Anton, who has been in charge of the Gravi Residence for 23 years.
No jumping ship…nor tossing the elderly overboard. “It is shameful, if not downright criminal, that we should stop treating the patients that have contributed to the rise of our country, just because they are old.” Antón affirms that he has received “verbal” instructions to not ask for hospital transfers for people who are over 80 years old.
María is part of this segment of the population that, in Antón’s opinion, would be left for dead. This does not seem to trouble her spirit. “What I don’t want is to get the virus and infect others.” What really troubles her is that it is already midday and her daughter still hasn’t called. Her other two children, she repeats, died too young. “Here I have my cell phone. It’s a pay-as-you-go phone, if I don’t put money on it, I can’t call. It is a poor phone, just like me.”
Ten miles away from María, in the Sant Pere de Les Fonts Nursing Home, a private home in Terrassa, there are 66 residents, the majority who are a combination of public and private pay. Andrés Rueda, the man who accompanied Antón on the AVE train, is the director. Luck and “neurotic prevention” have kept the virus out for now. He also bought supplies. On February 28 he put hand sanitizer on the walls and hung posters that prohibited kissing family members.*** When he restricted visits, some people protested. “It’s just a little flu,” they said. “What a lot of damage that comparison has done,” Rueda mused. He is the director of the residence, where his wife is the head of nursing, his daughter, a psychologist, and his son, an administrator.
The control here is scrupulous. No one enters. Only the 40 employees who, upon arriving, pass directly to a dressing room. A doormat with water and bleach for shoes, clothing washed at high temperatures and disinfected with ozone wait for them before beginning their shift. Hair is pulled back. Masks. Gloves. Now yes, they can pass.
Rueda believes that the key has been getting ahead of the virus by a few days. “If we saw so clearly that the disease was going to spread, why didn’t the specialists?” asked the director, who has four residents isolated in their rooms for other reasons. “We have to be careful. The protocol must be followed. We clean before breakfast, lunch, snack, and dinner.” The hands of Vanesa Garcia, carer, suffer from this obsession with cleaning. “We are always disinfecting,” she said. They have opted to avoid turning on the television news. “We don’t want to distress them.” Sara Rueda, the psychologist, tries to managed the emotions of the team and to help family members. “We put them on Skype so they can see their families. And at six o’ clock in the evening, we dance to Resistiré.”***
*Even though Granada and Catalunya are both in Spain, the word “emigración” (emigration) is used. Sort of like the Great Migration in the 20th century United States, Spaniards from small towns (Andalucia and Extremadura especially) moved to the big city (Barcelona, Basque Country, Madrid) in search of jobs.
**Not sure who’s laughing here, Maria or Anton.
***”Besos” or the two-cheek kiss, is a traditional Spanish greeting/goodbye
****A popular song, translated as “I Will Resist”
Yet again another speedy translation. All mistake are mine. I found this article so touching and tragic and ultimately hopeful. We can do things to stop the spread of coronavirus in old folks’ homes. But we must act now.
Original article: “Las residencias que vieron venir el virus y lo pararon en la puerta: Dos centros de mayores catalanes que tomaron ya en febrero medidas de protección e higiene extremas suman cero contagios”