With no warning, a lethal strain of COVID-19 attacked Life Care Center of Farmington, New Mexico, on April 1 of this year. For the next 115 days, the facility that has served the Farmington community for 26 years battled a virtually unknown virus — one that had only surfaced in the United States and a handful of its more than 16,000 skilled nursing homes less than six weeks earlier.
- 87 resident cases: 44 deaths, 40 recovered, 3 discharged
- 53 associate cases; 53 recovered
- First case: April 1, 2020
- COVID-free: July 24, 2020
It was April 1, but this was no April Fools' joke.
By the time the New Mexico reached its summer peak of new active cases on June 27, the associates of Life Care Center of Farmington had already come face-to-face with COVID-19, defeated it and stabilized their facility. Today, Life Care Center of Farmington is free of the virus. However, that status is something we know can change at any moment.
The pall that COVID-19 cast over the facility in April and May has been replaced with laughter and smiles as families are slowly being reunited with their loved ones during outside visits, while looking forward to full visitation, which is on its way.
"The passion and spirit of the people here at Life Care Center of Farmington sustained them in the spring and continues to inspire the high level of service they provide today."
Josh Martin, the facility's new Executive Director
The voices of people who were on the front lines at the facility during the height of its COVID-19 outbreak crack when they talk about how a virus no one understood took the lives of 44 of their beloved residents.
Kristin Shambro is a regional vice president in the Southwest Division of Life Care Centers of America, and Farmington is one of her buildings. She was there in the early days of COVID-19 at Farmington, and she witnessed firsthand the heroic work done by the facility's associates and the tears they shed every time a resident passed away.
"There are really no words to describe the pain."
Kristin Shambro, Regional Vice President
Life Care Center of Farmington held a memorial service on Oct. 15 to honor the residents who died as a result of COVID-19. A tree and permanent plaque were placed on the grounds of the facility in their memory.
"We will think about our residents each day as we see the plaque and watch the tree grow," said Martin.
As it was for all of America's skilled nursing homes that faced COVID-19 in the first two months of the virus' sweep across the country, the first weeks of the outbreak at Life Care Center of Farmington were difficult, as knowledge of how to treat a virus with no cure was limited. Getting test results took up to 14 days, causing the rapid spread of a highly contagious virus. Local and state public health departments rallied to aid Life Care Center of Farmington as the strictly facility followed all of the protocols offered by the New Mexico Department of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services.
"We had different peaks in the number of positive cases," said Shambro. "They would trickle in, and then we would have 12 positives in a day. Then, a slow trickle, and then 16 more positives. The first few weeks felt really slow, even though the work was intense. We would think we were doing better, and then a big number of positives would come our way. It was disheartening, but we just kept working and taking care of our residents."
Julie Hank-Sanderson is the director of nursing at Life Care Center of Farmington, and she joined her team in battling the virus.
"When COVID-19 was first diagnosed here in the building, it was scary. I couldn't believe we had a case in my building, in one of my residents who called Life Care home. It took this battle to a whole new level. One second, we were trying to keep the virus out, the next we were fighting an unseen enemy that struck fast and hard. It didn't care your age, your ethnicity or where you came from in life — it struck all the same, and the results were devastating."
Julie Hank-Sanderson, Director of Nursing
The department of health was on-site at Life Care Center of Farmington and did virtual tours of the facility weekly through June. Federal surveyors from CMS did an on-site survey on May 27. The survey resulted in zero deficiencies against the facility, which speaks to the marvelous work being done by associates.
"To not get a single tag in the CMS survey is amazing. It shows the teamwork that occurred in Farmington and how stringently they followed all policy and protocols."
Matt Ham, Southwest Division Vice President
Seven months later, associates at Life Care Center of Farmington still talk about the outpouring of support they felt from the Farmington community during the outbreak. They talk about the phone calls of encouragement the facility and its residents received. A mural was even placed outside the facility that said, "Thank you Life Care staff! Your community supports you!!!" Video calls and window visits brought peace and smiles to residents and associates on difficult days.
As the virus began to peak in San Juan County and the rest of the state in the middle of July, Life Care Center of Farmington was calm. The lessons they had learned in April and May, along with the partnership they had developed with with local and state health officials and quicker test results, kept the building free of COVID-19.
"We were as prepared as anybody for a second wave of the virus, but it never came. For that, we are grateful," said Shambro.
That vigilance includes:
Life Care Center of Farmington remains vigilant to provide a high level of service in a safe environment that brings peace of mind to our residents and their families. It's what the community expects, and it is what the champions of care at Life Care Center of Farmington will continue to provide. That vigilance includes:
- Continued screening of all staff and visitors to the facility for signs and symptoms, including temperature checks at the beginning and end of shifts and before all visits.
- Preparation for the installation of "Needlepoint Bipolar Ionization," which will be placed inside the facility's HVAC systems. The technology adds ions to the airstream, which kills a virus. It also traps particles in a filter and uses UV technology to kill a virus.
- Ongoing communication with family members which will include monitored outdoor visits, window visits, texts, phone calls, FaceTime calls and being prepared for indoor visits once the state feels they are safe.
- Testing at least 25% of our staff members every week so that 100% of our staff members are tested every month for COVID-19. We also have the capabilities of testing all staff and residents multiple times per week, if necessary.
- Implementing the use of a Point of Care testing machine that will give us an early detection system by allowing us to test any resident or staff that develops symptoms with results within 15 minutes of the test.
- Having an infection control nurse on-staff who will keep up-to-date infection control information and ensure strict adherence to CDC, CMS and state health department guidance. The infection control nurse will train and monitor staff on the latest policies and procedures.
- Quarantining all new admissions and any resident who leaves for a period of time for 14 days after their entry/re-entry into the facility, allowing for observation to prevent any new introduction of the virus into the facility.
- Offering the flu shot to residents and staff in our building.
Like many of her director of nursing colleagues around the country, Sanderson never gave a moment's thought that she would find herself in the middle of a pandemic, never mind one that would cause more than 140 people to get sick and 44 to pass away.
"I must say, not once did our associates falter in this fight. Every day we rose together and fought as champions against an invisible enemy that tore through our hearts and souls. I am honored to fight alongside this team for our residents and each other."
Julie Hank-Sanderson, Director of Nursing