By Mary Klaus
Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, states, counties, and organizations across the nation have worked to “flatten the curve.” Here in Harrisburg, The Campus of the Jewish Home of Greater Harrisburg has stayed ahead of the curve.
Nationally, tens of thousands of residents and workers at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities for older adults have died from COVID-19 -- and more have been sickened by it. In contrast, the Jewish Home of Greater Harrisburg has not had a single confirmed case of it as of May 22.
“While well over half of the facilities in Pennsylvania and several in our county deal with COVID-19 positive cases, our campus remains COVID-naïve, meaning we have no confirmed cases,” said Allen Geckle, Jewish Home of Greater Harrisburg CEO.
COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, is especially deadly to people older than 60 and those with underlying health conditions such as cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory disease, diabetes, and cancer. It can spread easily through nursing homes where people live in a confined environment and workers move from room to room. Nationally, nursing home residents have accounted for at least half of all COVID-19 deaths.
Geckle said that the Jewish Home in Susquehanna Township has dodged this bullet by “taking an aggressive approach and staying a step ahead of what the government required” for dealing with the crisis.
“Our focus is to keep Covid-19 out rather than defend ourselves against it once it’s in,” Geckle said. “Our families and staff have been very supportive of this.” Specifically, the Jewish Home has:
- Prohibited all visitors since March 10th, days before similar state mandates.
- Cancelled all outside medical appointments, instead having doctor visits electronically.
- Required all staff plus residents who are out of their rooms to wear masks.
- Required staff to wear gowns over their scrubs as they go into resident rooms.
- Required staff to also wear goggles if near a patient deemed at risk.
- Required three-day isolations for residents who are new admissions and re-admissions.
- Changed delivery policies so that deliveries are dropped off at a back door and either sit in isolation for 24 hours or are wiped down.
- Established a COVID-19 Task Force consisting of senior management and medical personnel who confer five times each week.
- Closely monitored symptoms in both residents and staff.
- Quarantined staff at home if symptoms indicate.
- Increased and maintained an adequate supply of personal protective equipment.
All of this has taken some adapting, Geckle said, praising his resilient staff.
“Where needed, physicians are conducting exams and visits via our expanded use of telehealth technology,” Geckle said. “When emergency situations dictate, residents are sent to the hospital emergency department. We have to do these things. Our residents are the most vulnerable population due to their ages and underlying health conditions.”
Geckle said that Jewish Home of Greater Harrisburg staff and residents are using 500 to 700 masks each day, about 30 times regular daily use, and has at least doubled the number of gloves used.
The Jewish Home has 190 residents ranging in age from 65 to 100-plus in the skilled and personal care units. The campus also has 245 employees. Geckle said that people have been frustrated by, but understanding of, the rules prohibiting visitors and limiting activities.
“We understand the frustration of not being able to visit,” Geckle said. “Our staff is working hard to conduct as many Skype, Zoom, and Facetime visits as possible to keep families connected. Some families go to the windows for a visit. This was an area where the campus was ahead of the curve and we believe was instrumental in helping to prevent the virus from entering our buildings.”
He said that one staff nurse has brought her nine children to the campus to walk around outside, knock on windows, hold up friendly signs, and sing.
Inside the facility, residents can attend virtual Shabbat services and activities if the groups are of six or less. Residents who leave their rooms good-naturedly wear masks portraying everything from sports teams to comic characters.
Recently, carloads of people from throughout the Jewish community cheered the residents and employees of the Jewish Home during a drive-by parade.
“So many people want to bring us food, but we don’t allow it,” Geckle said, citing concerns about the virus entering the facility. “Our staff brings their own food from home. We do accept cash donations. And Gerry Gorelick and the other members of our Board of Directors personally raised $13,000 out of their own pockets for $50 GIANT gift cards for the staff.” Gift cards were purchased through The Silver Academy, which received a portion of the purchased funds through an affiliate program.
Eventually, Geckle said, he wants to celebrate his “remarkable” staff and residents with a “COVID is dead” party.
“We look forward to a reunion of hugs, tears of joy, and celebration in the future,” he said. “Until then, we will stay the course, send a weekly letter to the families to keep them up to date, and keep our residents and staff as safe as we can.”