Richard E. Long, of Dubuque, kissed his wife of 61 years goodbye after dinner on March 10.
Ramped-up restrictions related to COVID-19 were going to prevent the high school sweethearts from being together.
And, even then, the 83-year-old kept vigil outside his wife’s nursing home window for days, accompanied by hospice workers and family.
“He would knock on her window and talk loudly through the window,” said his son, Russ Long, 59, of Maquoketa, Iowa. “Telling her he was there for her and how much he loved her. That last day, it was raining, but he stayed out there in the rain outside her window.
“He wasn’t about to leave her side.”
Mary J. Long, 79, died Sunday at Dubuque Specialty Care from complications due to COVID-19, according to her family.
She is one of at least two deaths linked to an outbreak at the long-term-care facility, according to family and published obituaries.
A contracted certified nursing assistant working at Dubuque Specialty Care told the Telegraph Herald on Friday that 10 residents have died due to the virus.
The nursing home’s parent company disputed that number, saying it was less but would not disclose the number of deaths, citing privacy concerns.
Local public health officials said they did not have that information, as it is reported to the state by the facilities.
The State of Iowa tracks outbreaks at long-term-care facilities and discloses the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases and people who have recovered at each, but not death totals. Health officials only report a statewide death toll of the coronavirus for such facilities.
The state reported 37 such outbreaks in 16 counties as of 5 p.m. Friday, with a total of 1,522 confirmed cases and 225 deaths. Those facilities account for 9% of the state’s confirmed cases and 52% of COVID-19 deaths.
Forty residents and nine employees have tested positive for the coronavirus at Dubuque Specialty Care, and 10 have recovered, according to company and state figures.
That remains the lone outbreak in a nursing home in Dubuque County. No outbreaks — defined as at least three confirmed cases — have been reported at facilities in Clayton, Delaware, Jackson or Jones counties.
Questions of oversight
Earlier this week, the family of a 93-year-old Dubuque Specialty Care resident with COVID-19 called on county officials to investigate their oversight authority for such facilities.
Family members said they witnessed staff inside the nursing home failing to follow safety guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A spokesman for Care Initiatives, the parent company of Dubuque Specialty Care, disputes the family’s claims.
“Dubuque Specialty Care has been and continues to follow all recommended CDC and Iowa Department of Public Health infection control guidelines,” said Jason Bridie, director of marketing, in a statement to the Telegraph Herald.
He said that includes staff wearing masks and additional personal protective equipment of face shields, gloves and gowns where appropriate.
No visitors, including family members, are allowed in the facility, and staff have isolated residents in the building from new admissions and readmissions for up to 14 days, Bridie said. All employees are screened at the beginning and end of their shifts, and upon re-entering the building.
‘We won’t give up’
Sarah Fairchild, who was hired to work at the nursing home in January through a nursing service, said she has worked 16-hour shifts seven days per week for the past month, since the outbreak was identified.
She said the facility has been short staffed as some employees cannot work because they or family members have underlying health conditions that make them especially vulnerable to the virus.
Fairchild is among them, but she said she has chosen to continue to work despite a kidney disease “because I’d rather be there taking care of (residents) than them not have anybody.”
“And I’m not the only one,” she said. “(W)e do love and care about these residents. … We haven’t given up. We won’t give up on these patients.”
The single mother of three said that she has not seen her children in a month to avoid potentially infecting an infant son and another who is epileptic, autistic and has a heart condition.
“I don’t think communities really understand what takes place inside these walls,” she said. “When we look out … and see the rest of the world moving on, we’re still at a standstill. We’re still … fighting a war inside this building. We sit in those rooms and read cards and letters of affection, caring and support (from family members).”
The deaths have taken a personal toll on facility staff, who struggle for time to grieve for patients, Fairchild said.
“We want to cry, but we have to put on a face and be strong for these people,” she said. “They need us. … And we’re experiencing these deaths like we’re losing a family member. These are people you’ve built bonds with and cared for.”
‘Not eating or drinking’
Russ Long said his mother — who suffered from dementia — had lived at the nursing home for nine months.
She tested negative for the virus two weeks prior to her death, then took a sharp turn for the worse 10 days later.
“She went from being smiley, loving and caring to not responsive and not eating or drinking,” he said.
A second test came back positive, leading Long to believe her first test might have been a false negative.
The Prairie du Chien, Wis., native, who loved music and would dance to anything, died four days later — two months shy of her 80th birthday.
Long said family members were “very, very happy” with nursing home employees who cared for her.
He urged nursing home and public health officials to release the number of deaths at long-term-care facilities.
“I think that will further help people understand it is a deadly, deadly virus,” he said.