How Our Island Home beat COVID.
Over the past year, as Heather Francis arrived at work each day, the beautiful view of The Creeks and Nantucket Harbor couldn’t negate her sense of dread. As the director of nursing at Our Island Home, Francis was charged with keeping Nantucket’s most vulnerable residents safe amid a pandemic that was proving deadly and devastating to nursing homes across the country. She was on pins and needles on a daily basis.
Our Island Home locked its doors to the outside world on March 9, 2020, barring visitors and volunteers in order to protect its residents from the novel coronavirus that was about to be unleashed upon the East Coast, and soon the entire country. Life changed drastically for everyone, of course, and inside Nantucket’s nursing home, Francis and the rest of the staff waged a nonstop effort to prevent an outbreak at the forty-five-bed facility.
The nation quickly learned that the virus was most lethal among the elderly, especially those living in close quarters at places like long-term-care facilities where it could spread easily among residents. But the scale of the tragedy that unfolded at nursing homes and long-term-care facilities during the pandemic is staggering. Less than 1 percent of America’s population lives in such facilities, but yet they account for 34 percent of U.S. COVID-19 deaths, according to The Atlantic magazine’s COVID Tracking Project. Nationwide, nearly 175,000 nursing home residents have died as a result of the virus. The losses were even more pronounced in Massachusetts, where more than half of all COVID-19 deaths occurred in nursing homes.
And yet Our Island Home, which has the distinction of being Massachusetts’ only municipally owned and operated nursing home, has emerged essentially unscathed from the pandemic, with nothing short of a miraculous record of keeping its patients and staff safe from the virus. Not a single patient at Our Island Home has died from COVID-19. There was not even one infection among its residents. Just a single staff member tested positive for the virus, and that person was quickly isolated and recovered without spreading the disease to anyone at the facility.
Through a combination of early action, strict infection control protocols, regular surveillance testing for patients and staff and perhaps just sheer luck, Our Island Home was spared the same agonizing fate as other nursing homes. “What we did, it worked,” said Francis. “Our infection control policies were spot on, our facilities staff, housekeeping, nursing, it was everyone working together. The group we have in there, they were so resilient and I admire so much about them.”
The improbable success in keeping the island’s most vulnerable residents safe, even as the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations on Nantucket spiked over the fall and early winter of 2020, stands as a remarkable accomplishment when so many similar facilities suffered widespread infections and deaths. But the rapid departure from the routine of daily life took some time to adapt to, and even then, it continued to change from week to week, and even day to day.
“Any type of change can be tough, and unexpected change can be difficult, but this type of unprecedented change is a beast of its own,” said Ally Rowell, the activities director for Our Island Home. “One of the biggest things that struck me about the toll of COVID here is that sense of isolation and the sense of loss in day-to-day life which has changed so drastically.”
For the staff of Our Island Home, the daily grind of nasal swabs, donning PPE, constant disinfecting procedures, ensuring appropriate distancing within the facility and adapting to a slew of new regulations and protocols was difficult enough. But the burden of responsibility to their patients didn’t end with their shift. Employees knew that their own behaviors and the precautions they took—or didn’t take—outside the facility could very well be the difference be- tween life and death for residents of Our Island Home. When the island started to experience relatively significant community spread of the virus in the fall of 2020, with test positivity rates topping 15 percent at certain points, the weight of that burden stayed with them whether they were working or not.
“None of us wanted to be that person who brought it in the building,” Francis said. “For me as director of nursing, I had a daily fear that today is the day. Today is the day it’s going to happen. Every week I’m on pins and needles waiting for the [test] results to come back.”
The sixty-six staff members of Our Island Home, whether they were in housekeeping, nursing, grounds, food services, administration or other roles at the facility, all quickly recognized that the task of keeping residents safe from the virus went far beyond just their normal job duties.
“They did an incredible job and made so many personal sacrifices of their own freedoms to preserve and protect the health of our residents,” Rowell said. “It’s been an all-hands- on-deck situation with the staff.”
Rowell added that the residents quickly bought in too, holding themselves and the staff accountable for sticking to the precautions. If they saw a mask fall below the nose, or an employee checking in to the facility too fast, they would let the staff hear about it. Ninety-six-year-old Gladys Soverino, a ten-year resident of Our Island Home, was one of those patients. “They worked very hard to keep us safe,” Soverino said over the phone in March. “I felt safe. I have friends here.”
Gladys’ son, Tim Soverino, has now had both of his parents living as residents at Our Island Home and witnessed firsthand how the staff and patients adapted to the extraordinary circumstances presented by the pandemic. In the days before his father passed away at Our Island Home in December, Soverino worked with the nursing team on a plan that allowed him to visit and share those final moments safely. “They’ve been exceptional,” he said. “That place is a little slice of heaven on Earth for the people who need it. They have done such a great job of keeping our loved ones safe.”
As the calendar turned to 2021, the residents and staff of Our Island Home got the message they had been waiting for. A team from CVS Pharmacy was planning to come to the island to vaccinate all patients and employees of the facility against the disease. The sense of hope and the feeling of relief brought some to tears.
“We were all waiting at the door, knowing they had just come off the boat, and it was like the Ghostbusters showing up at the door,” Francis said, recalling the moment on January 5th when the CVS team arrived. “It was so awesome. We were all so excited. [Licensed practical nurse] Carol Matson, who has been working at the Island Home for years, was the first. And it was magical.”
While acknowledging the many hardships they endured during the pandemic, the Our Island Home staff was also eager to talk about the silver linings. The support from the community in the form of cards, drive-bys, videos, calls and other recognitions were heartening, Francis said. When Our Island Home resident Bea Santos marked her one hundredth birthday in February, Rowell recalled how dozens of islanders as well as Nantucket police, fire and Coast Guard officers joined a car parade to help her celebrate. And there was also the camaraderie they built as a team in the shared experience of an unimaginable challenge. “It has totally changed us,” Francis said. “The way we treat each other and the things we value. It’s not institutionalized. It’s not corporate. It’s a home.”