DENHAM SPRINGS, La. (The Livingston Parish News) — Even after nearly 10 months, Sharon Minton still hasn’t gotten used to wearing a face mask.
A resident of Golden Age Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center in Denham Springs, Minton said she can’t wait for the day she takes “that thing” off for the last time.
“And then throw it in the fire,” she added with a laugh.
Minton and dozens of others took a step toward normalcy — and mask-free living — this week when Golden Age began administering its first doses of Moderna’s vaccine to prevent contraction of the novel coronavirus.
Golden Age, one of four local facilities under the umbrella of PMC, was the first long-term care facility in Denham Springs to administer vaccines as part of the state’s months-long vaccination process.
In Gov. John Bel Edwards’ vaccination plan, staff and residents of nursing homes and long-term care facilities were in the first group — Priority Group 1A — to receive the vaccinations, along with health care workers at Tier 1 and Tier 2 hospitals and emergency medical services employees and firefighters.
PMC’s other facilities — Harvest Manor Healthcare and Rehabilitation, La Plantation Retirement Community, and Southern Pines Retirement Community — are scheduled to begin vaccinations later this month.
Additional clinics are slated over the months of February and March. A second dose of the Moderna vaccine is required 28 days after the first.
With representatives from Walgreens administering the doses, approximately 183 Golden Age residents and staff received their first of two COVID-19 shots on Monday, according to director of clinical operations Samantha Broussard.
“For this to be our first clinic, this was a really good turnout and we were really excited about it,” Broussard said. “We expect more to do it next time.”
Minton, a Denham Springs native whose family used to own the popular Peppy’s Peanuts on LA Hwy. 16, received the vaccine in her left arm around 10 a.m.
“And it didn’t hurt,” she said.
For long-term care facility residents like Minton, the vaccine signals the possible end of an emotional 10-month period that began on March 9, when Louisiana reported its first case of the novel coronavirus.
Two days later, Edwards declared a public health emergency in the state and later imposed visitation restrictions on nursing homes that, initially, were set to last for 30 days.
That was nearly 300 days ago, a taxing stretch that has effectively shut off nursing homes from the outside world.
“It’s been driving me and everybody else crazy,” said Minton, who is president of Golden Age’s resident council. “But we’re starting to get to the end of the road.
“It’s been a long road, and people are just snapping at each other. But when you’ve been locked up for 10 months and haven’t seen anybody else, you’ll get that way.”
In September, the state updated its guidance regarding nursing home visitation to allow for outdoor visitation with required social distancing. Additionally, nursing homes in parishes with no more than 10 percent test positivity and with no new onset of COVID cases in the previous 14 days can allow indoor visitation.
Still, it hasn’t been the same as it was once.
“It’s been a grind for our residents and employees, said Jordan D’Arensbourg, facility administrator of Golden Age. “COVID fatigue is the biggest thing, and not seeing faces in here when this facility used to have 95 involvement from families has been hard. Families used to be in and out of here every day, but they have been great in supporting us and understanding everything we’ve had to put into place.”
Despite imposing additional safety measures on long-term care facilities, they haven’t been spared. According to figures from the Louisiana Department of Health, there have been more than 2,400 deaths among residents reported to the state from around 275 facilities.
That death toll, which was last updated on Dec. 30, 2020, accounts for roughly one-third of the state’s total number of COVID-19 fatalities.
“Watching them pass” has been the hardest part for Shaletha Maten, a certified nursing assistant who works as Golden Age’s transportation driver. Maten spends her days bringing residents to and from their doctor appointments and bringing new residents to the facility, forming many “personal connections” through the road trips.
“It’s been some good days and some bad days [since the pandemic started],” Maten said. “But just keeping everyone safe has been the main goal for everybody that works here. People think if you’re a frontline worker, you’re scared and afraid, but it’s something that you love to do, and you do it.”
An employee at Golden Age for nearly four years, Maten received her vaccination around 1 p.m. Monday and described it as “painless” (“It just went through and that was it. I felt more of the flu shot than this.”)
Like Minton, Maten hopes the vaccine will eventually bring closure to a pandemic that up-ended normal life.
“This is a relief to all of us,” she said.
To give residents some sort of social interaction, the Golden Age staff has gotten creative.
The facility holds regular “hallway bingo nights” in which residents sit at their doors and fill up their play cards while someone calls out the numbers. There are also painting activities and socially-distant interactions in the nearby courtyard.
Not much of a painter — “I can’t even draw a circle” — Minton said she most looks forward to the afternoon coffee rounds, mixing spoonfuls of cream and sugar into her steaming cup of joe.
“That’s a real blessing,” she said, a smile stretched across her face. “I like that boost you get in the afternoon, to get you through to bedtime.”
In December, D’Arensbourg said the facility put on “a little Christmas party” for the residents, seating them one per table while staff served “quite the spread” as holiday music blared through the halls.
Residents dined on chicken and shrimp or sausage or shrimp gumbo, potato salad, quiche, barbeque sausages and meatballs, a large fruit tray, and cake for dessert.
“Just something to get them some sort of normality,” D’Arensbourg said. “For the most part, we’ve shut down the cafeteria. It’s basically been everyone eating in their rooms.”
Said Broussard: “We still continue activities. We’ve just had to revamp the activities to protect residents and maintain social distancing.”
D’Arensbourg, who took his position in July 2017, was the first Golden Age employee to receive the vaccination Monday. Though he said some were “weary” about being among the first to be vaccinated, D’Arensbourg hopes those feelings will change over the coming months.
“We’re just ready for a change,” he said. “Hopefully this will be a positive movement and we’ll be able to open our doors because of this.”
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