Elder care communities in Iowa turning visitors away due to coronavirus concerns

Facilities move aggressively to protect vulnerable Iowans

A sign in the lobby Saturday at Cottage Grove Place in southeast Cedar Rapids warns of limited access to the continuing
A sign in the lobby Saturday at Cottage Grove Place in southeast Cedar Rapids warns of limited access to the continuing care retirement community for everyone entering the facility. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Retirement communities, assisted living facilities and nursing homes are turning away visitors, regularly screening staff and residents and funneling deliveries to protect the population demographic most vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.

“We are taking an extremely proactive stance,” said Mark Bailey, executive director at Cottage Grove Place in Cedar Rapids, one of the many elder care communities clamping down in hopes of staving off the spread of the virus. “We are requesting that visitors and family stay away unless there is some sort of special circumstance such as an emergency issue or an end-of-life situation.”

Even when there are visitors, they are checked for fever and asked a series of questions.

Cottage Grove is home to about 300 residents between its independent living apartments and its assisted living, long-term care and memory care facilities. All the residents have been asked to keep to themselves, Bailey said, and those in independent living — typically more free to move about — have been asked to steer clear of the other patients.

Bailey said the facility’s staff also is screened at the start of every shift. That screening includes a series of questions about where they’ve been since their last shift, how they’re feeling and if they’ve had contact with anyone displaying symptoms of or diagnosed with coronavirus. Staff members are also checked for fever.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, older adults and those who suffer serious chronic medical conditions such as heart disease, diabetes or lung disease and most vulnerable from the virus, known as COVID-19.

“What we know about COVID-19 is that it poses a shockingly high risk of serious illness and death to those over 80 and with underlying health conditions, characteristics which most residents in long-term care possess,” said Brent Willett, president and chief executive officer of The Iowa Health Care Association, which represents most of the state’s more than 790 long-term care providers.

“Everyone is working toward the same goal: To protect the health and well-being of our country’s elderly and most vulnerable residents.”


At Iowa City’s Oaknoll. Director Kim Bergen-Jackson said she and her staff are taking similar steps to protect residents.

“We’ve closed off all of the facilities’ access points except three,” she said. “And before anyone is allowed to enter one of those three they have to be screened, which means they have to answer some questions.”

Bergen-Jackson said visitations to Oaknoll’s 58-bed nursing and 38-bed assisted living facilities has been stopped. Those living in the 275 independent living apartments are being encouraged to not entertain visitors, she said.

Additionally, vendors — including food delivery services and newspaper carriers — are being asked to leave deliveries at the door, she said.

These precautions fall in line with guidelines released Friday by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which state in part:

“Facilities should restrict visitation of all visitors and non-essential health care personnel, except for certain compassionate care situations, such as an end-of-life situation. In those cases, visitors will be limited to a specific room only.

“For individuals that enter in compassionate situations, facilities should require visitors to perform hand hygiene and use Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), such as face masks. Decisions about visitation during an end of life situation should be made on a case-by-case basis, which should include careful screening of the visitor for fever or respiratory symptoms. Those with symptoms of a respiratory infection should not be permitted to enter the facility at any time (even in end-of-life situations).”

Should a resident get sick despite these precautions, Bergen-Jackson said Oaknoll is equipped to isolate and care for such patients unless a patient becomes life-threateningly ill, in which case that resident would be transferred to the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinic.


Bailey said any patients who test positive for coronavirus at Cottage Grove would likely be transferred immediately to an area hospital.

“Thus us unknown territory and we are dealing with a very high-risk group of people,” he said. “So we’re going to do everything we can to limit the risk of exposure.”

In addition to the precautions, Kent Walton, administrator at the Care Center and Promise House in Hiawatha, said it is important to ease the anxiety of residents.

“Like the rest of us, they’re watching the news, they’re talking to family on the phone, and they’re just as afraid as any of us,” he said. “You know, if you are 83 and you’ve already got chronic obstructive pulmonary disease or congestive heart failure and you’re reading and seeing the news, you’re probably going to think ‘Oh my gosh I’m going get this and get sick and die,’ and so reassurance from us and from the physicians is very important.”

Without visitors and with only limited social interaction, it can be hard for residents to focus on anything other than the coronavirus, Walton said, “which is why we are doing what we can to distract them and keep them busy.”

Though many facilities have canceled all their social activities, Walton said the care center still is arranging activities — such as karaoke or a movie screening — for its residents. At the same time, he said, those activities are being kept internal and limited only to residents. Any activities that would require outside people coming in — such as a band performance — have been canceled.

“We are just trying to give them a bit of a distraction so they’re not just sitting there and watching the news and worrying,” Walton said.

And with much of the world shutting down, Walton said a lot of the programming residents were looking forward to watching has been canceled or delayed.


“They’re all really upset about not being able to watch March Madness,” Walton said. “Every year the residents put together a big pool for who is going to win, and now it’s canceled, So they’re all very upset about that.”

But they have come up with other ways to have some fun, Walton said.

“Yeah, they’ve asked me to set up a basketball game in the dining room so we can all play.”

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