Fear factor still lingers over COVID in nursing homes

As COVID cases climb once again with the omicron variant, there’s no place where the fear factor lingers more than in nursing homes.

“I still go to sleep at night wondering what is going to happen next,” said James Cox, President and CEO of Paramount Senior Living, which owns 13 facilities in Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio and Delaware.

It’s been more than two years since the lockdown, and for many nursing home residents and families, it’s been a tough road back to some sense of normalcy.

In this special assignment report, Channel 11′s Angie Moreschi looks at where we are today in these facilities that were so devastated by COVID-19.

Visitors welcome again

It was a long time coming, but for the most part, nursing homes and assisted living facilities have finally opened back up for visitation.

Two years after lockdown, in March of 2022, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid issued a memo with the latest revised guidance on visitation saying, “visitation should be allowed for all residents at all times.”

At Paramount Senior Living in Peters Township, things are getting back to the way they were before COVID — with communal dining, games in the activity room and most importantly, family members visiting in person without restrictions.

“COVID was a really difficult experience,” Dr. Bill Pope, a resident of Paramount, told Channel 11.

The retired superintendent from the Upper St. Clair school district says he missed his wife of more than 50 years beyond words.

“I don’t know how I made it without seeing her the whole time,” said Bill Pope, who must use a wheelchair due to advanced multiple sclerosis.

When COVID hit, Kim Pope, who always came to visit her husband every day, was no longer allowed in to help her husband.

“Oh my, just so difficult,” Kim Pope said, exasperated as she remembered those days, “It was just so difficult. I was worried about him.”

Impact of COVID measured in lost time

For so many families, the trauma of losing time with loved ones is one of the painful legacies of COVID in nursing homes.

Talking on the phone and window visits became the substitutes for being there, but it was not the same.

Worst of all, many residents died of COVID — some 17,000 individuals in nursing homes in Pennsylvania alone.

It all started so suddenly.

Mary Lou Scharf’s mother, Blanche Warcholak, was a resident of Paramount on March 11, 2020, when the lockdown was announced there.

“I was sitting here with my mother at 1 o’clock. All the aides went up and said, ‘They just changed the rules. You have to leave the facility now,’” Scharf told Channel 11.

The doors closed by state order, and just like that, two years of restrictions and isolation began.

“She said, ‘You can’t leave me, you can’t leave me. You just got here,’” Scharf remembered her mother saying to her.

She had no choice but to go, leaving behind her 93-year-old mom.

“It was terrible. Terrible,” Scharf said.

Psychological impact

In the beginning, Paramount’s owner said the lockdown seemed to make sense to protect our most vulnerable, but as weeks stretched into months, even he began to question the state and federal guidance.

“Everybody just felt like the world was ending and we just didn’t know when it was going to stop,” Cox said. “The psychological effect of keeping people away from each other was horrific.”

He says the unintended consequences became clear.

“From people not wanting to eat, from people not wanting to talk, they were falling into depression, sleeping all day,” Cox remembered.

Department of Aging Long-term Care Ombudsman Kim Shetler told Channel 11 the lockdown continuing for so long did more harm than good.

“It was really damaging across the board,” Shetler said. “I think they recognize now how detrimental that was, and I don’t anticipate that you’ll ever see that type of closure again.”

For Mary Lou Scharf, it’s painful to think about all the lost time with her mom. During the lockdown, while restrictions prevented long visits, Blanche passed away from heart failure.

“It was so hard. It was so hard, so hard,” she said, shaking her head.

Lessons learned

For those who made it through, like Bill Pope and his wife, reflecting on that difficult time makes them cherish each other all the more.

“I love her and I’m glad she’s here,” Bill Pope said.

Kim Pope left us with these words of wisdom for all:

“Don’t take anything for granted because your life can change like that. And ours did, didn’t it?”