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Preparedness, communication merit high marks for Catholic Charities’ nursing home

St. Elizabeth Rehabilitation and Nursing Center received one of its highest approval ratings from clients during the year of the pandemic, according to an annual survey by the Maryland Health Care Commission. 

When asked in the survey about the COVID-19 pandemic, 98 percent of families felt they received timely information from the Catholic Charities of Baltimore facility;  98 percent were very or extremely positive about how St. Elizabeth responded during this challenging time.

Newsweek also recognized the center, just south of Ascension St. Agnes Hospital, as St. Elizabeth ranked No. 11 in its “America’s Best Nursing Homes 2021.” The publication ranked the top 400 nursing home facilities from 20 states based on performance data, peer recommendations and the facility’s handling of the COVID-19 threat.

Zachary Richards, St. Elizabeth’s administrator, said staff at the 162-bed facility rose to the challenges created by COVID-19, work that is reflected in the survey. 

Richards arrived as administrator in April 2020 – the same week the first St. Elizabeth’s resident contracted COVID-19. The facility has had 52 cases total. He credits his predecessors for ensuring that the facility was well supplied with personal protective equipment (PPE.)

“Where many facilities were not, we were able to secure PPE, which was a big thing in the beginning of the pandemic” Richards said. “We were able to use our buying power as Catholic Charities.”

Communication with residents also became key.

“The folks who were in the facility before me did a great job of shutting down the facility and communicating with families,” he said. “There were daily updates to families of what was going on and how things were being run.”

Richards’ team built on that effort, developing a system that could be lifted incrementally in response to current circumstances of the pandemic. At the start, every staff member was wearing full PPE gear, including masks, goggles, face shields and gowns. 

The facility’s third floor was converted into a COVID-19 unit. A “person under investigation” unit, to further safeguard the vulnerable population, was created. Visitation with guests was monitored based on risk estimates and vaccination status. 

As time passed and staff learned more, Richards said, they understood better how to mitigate the risk while simultaneously maintaining the quality of life of their clients. While some safeguards were dramatically eased, group activities off campus remain suspended.

Candace Mihalic, whose mother, Kathleen, has lived at St. Elizabeth’s for more than six years, has been impressed with the care she received during the pandemic. 

“My mom is 100 years old, so I was so concerned about her chances of survival,” Mihalic said via Catholic Charities. “This pandemic could’ve easily taken her out, despite her surviving so much in her life, such as the Spanish flu and the polio outbreak. My sister and I were so worried this could’ve been the end, but we agree St. Elizabeth’s is the safest place she could be right now.

“They help Mom Facetime us twice a week, while we sit in my sister’s backyard. You hear about the nightmares families are experiencing at other facilities, but St. Elizabeth has done an extraordinary job.”

Asked about the most critical factor in St. Elizabeth’s performance during the pandemic, Richards first mentioned pastoral care.

“We have a pastoral team and we’re able to be on the floor connecting to people on a spiritual level,” he explained. “That’s a huge factor for people most non-religious facilities don’t have. They miss that psycho-social aspect. That’s a big deal.”

Anxiety was compounded by restrictions on visitors, which the staff did its best to alleviate. 

“Our staff (members) understand they had to step into that role,” Richards said. “Our staff did that in a really beautiful way.”

Father Raymond Chase, pastor of St. Vincent de Paul Church in Baltimore’s Jonestown neighborhood, has also served St. Elizabeth as its chaplain for several years. He celebrates regularly Mass at the facility.

“Those who are here in long-term care, after a while they become family,” he said. “It’s a remarkable privilege to be with them.”

Both Father Chase and Richards emphasized that the work that went on at the nursing home falls directly in line with Catholic Charities’ mission to “Cherish the Divine Within.”

“It would be a sadness if we treated people generically,” Father Chase said. “The truth of the matter is that each is a unique human being with experiences.”

Richards recognizes too that his staff members are unique individuals. He said the workers can internalize some of the media coverage that came out about the poor performance of some nursing homes during the pandemic. It’s an issue that impacts them personally.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, nursing homes got blamed for a lot of things,” Richards said. “A lot of times, nursing homes are the scapegoat.”

The survey and the Newsweek ranking, he said, are a welcome boost to morale.

“It’s amazing,” Richards said. “We always try to appreciate our staff and show them they are being recognized, and their work is extremely important. This is an external tool that shows what they do is appreciated.”

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