Mother's Day marks a milestone in one rest home's coronavirus recovery, with treats and gifts from families on the outside allowed in for the holed-up loved ones. Kurt Bayer looks at the cluster at George Manning Lifecare & Village.
An elderly masked lady totters to the piano and starts playing. The loud, sudden sound reverberates and resonates around the open space, stopping residents and staff in their tracks. They look at each other. Eyes above the blue masks, twinkle in smiling unison. Music is back.
The sad, scary, lonely times of being isolated in their rooms now lifted, the residents of George Manning Lifecare & Village, in the Christchurch suburb of Spreydon, can also play their favourite games again. Housie and Wordfind on the big whiteboard.
Banter. Gentle ribbing. Collegial congratulations to the winners.
For a while, it was dark times at George Manning. Despite moving into isolation and safe zones quickly, and being well-prepared with personal protective equipment (PPE) and hygiene standards, a resident was tested on-site for Covid-19 on March 31 after showing symptoms. The positive result came back 24 hours later.
It was a devastating blow for the tight-knit community and staff, who prided themselves on having created a warm, friendly environment that was heartily embraced by the families of residents. But their worst fears had come home to roost – the dreaded virus, rampaging around the world, and proving particularly deadly for elderly folk, had entered their safe haven.
Speaking to the Herald on Sunday about those early, uncertain times, care home manager Gail Kerse becomes emotional.
"It's bringing it all back …" she says, in tears.
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For Kerse felt a heavy weight of responsibility to ensure the safety of her vulnerable, elderly residents. She felt they'd done all the right things: planned for an outbreak, additional cleaning, stocked up with PPE and even shifted into isolation mode before any hint of the virus being inside the home.
"We acted like it was in the place before we knew it was," Kerse says.
"But there's no getting away from the fact, that it was a scary time for everyone. You were fearful of the unknown and you could see that in the eyes above the masks.
"It was the unknown and families were really worried for their loved ones and we were carrying that responsibility."
After the first positive case, came another. And then another. Before long, George Manning was deemed a cluster. There were eventually 20 cases.
Just how the deadly virus got inside the home, is still under investigation, the Canterbury District Health Board said this week. But CDHB Medical Officer of Health Dr Cheryl Brunton confirmed that the possibility it was introduced by a visitor or staff member who may have been asymptomatic at the time forms part of their inquiries.
Some residents found it difficult to understand why their liberties and movements were being shut down. One lady became confused with it all. But others, staff would later say, were saying: "You think this is hardship? This is nothing."
"They had already gone through lots of adversity in their lives – World War II, earthquakes – they were such a resilient lot. I was blown away by how they handled it," Kerse says.
George Manning management would also be stunned at the level of professionalism and dedication displayed by their staff, especially those in the isolation wing. Those who could, stayed working. And two workers, doing the 7am-7pm dayshift, stayed at the home for 14 days straight, eating and sleeping onsite. They were nicknamed "our soldiers".
"They didn't go home for 14 days. It was absolute dedication at its best," Kerse says.
"They were just incredible but they were proud of what they were doing, and it was reiterated to them constantly that what we were doing was working."
Even as residents slowly emerge from isolation - two weeks after the first case at the home was confirmed - the home remained locked down in its own bubble during lockdown alert levels 4 and 3, closed to the outside world, including family members. Staff could help facilitate videocalls and Zoom meetings, and even read out emails, but not seeing their loved ones, has been tough. One woman's family comes to the front window to communicate with her through handwritten signs. They even brought a baby great-grandchild to visit.
"She loves that. For her, if she hadn't had that, it would've been extremely difficult," Kerse says. "They will all be thrilled when we get down to lockdown [alert level] 2."
With 19 of George Manning's 20 coronavirus cases - both staff and residents - recovered, Norah Barlow, chief executive of Heritage Lifecare, which owns and operates the rest home, is grateful they were announced on Friday as a closed cluster soon.
It could have been much worse. Across town, Rosewood Rest Home has had 55 cases and 11 deaths.
George Manning is trialling a thermal imaging machine, designed in Christchurch, which tests incoming staff for a high temperature. Barlow says it's being used as "one of the aids to help all of aged care to be watchful for any future outbreaks". Once visiting opens up again, they hope to also use it for residents' families.
Life is slowly returning to normal for the residents. At least every second day, they eat their meals in one of the facility's three dining areas, maintaining social distancing rules.
Residents are now allowed to hang out in the communal lounge and use the rest home's piano.
And today, Mother's Day, marks a milestone in their recovery. Decorations have been put up and family members have been able to drop off presents at the reception area throughout the past week. The wrapped gifts have been quarantined for 72 hours and will be hand delivered by staff this morning.
"It's always such a fun time and usually have lots of people coming in on Mother's Day," says Kerse. "But we need to make the most of what we've got. They're just such a great lot of people."
George Manning is nearly out of the woods. They're feeling grateful to have avoided any fatalities, but are starting to allow thoughts of returning to normal life.
"We're still walking around feeling really cautious but we're not focussing on the negativity much, it's more like, 'We've got through this, now just carry on,'" says Kerse.
"We've got to carry on and take each day as it comes."