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'Very different': Covington senior home residents preparing for smaller holiday dinner amid pandemic
Oaks at Ashton Hills
The Oaks at Ashton Hills in Covington. - photo by Special to The Covington News

COVINGTON, Ga. — At least one Newton County senior living facility is working to celebrate Thanksgiving as closely to previous years as possible amid the increased risks to its residents from COVID-19.

The Oaks at Ashton Hills, which is a personal care home offering memory care and assisted living, will make decisions based on community infection numbers for COVID-19 but is planning the same formal Thanksgiving meal it always hosts for its 50 residents.

The event usually serves about 200 guests, said community relations director Therese Askew. 

However, a notice on the facility's website stated that no visitors are permitted in the community "until further notice," while residents are not allowed to leave the facility except for medical care.

"The holidays are going to look very different," Askew said. "We're trying to still have a sense of community when family members aren't here."

As early as March, the Georgia Department of Public Health was warning that "elderly people and individuals with chronic medical conditions may have increased risk for COVID-19."

COVID-19 is most often spread through the air by coughing or sneezing, through close personal contact — including touching and shaking hands — or through touching the nose, mouth or eyes before washing hands, according to the department.

The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services' Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) recently recommended residents not leave nursing homes and long-term care facilities for Thanksgiving because of the dangers posed by the disease.

Seema Verma, administrator of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, wrote in a formal alert to facility administrators, residents, relatives and their representatives Nov. 18 that "with the holiday season fast approaching, we understand that residents and their families will want to spend more time together.”

"We also know that some residents may want to leave the nursing home temporarily to visit family and friends for the holidays or other outings.

"While CMS supports family engagement and a resident’s right to leave the nursing home, everyone needs to work together to take extra precautions to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 which can pose an elevated danger to the health of nursing home residents.

"Therefore, CMS recommends against residents leaving the nursing home during this (public health emergency)," Verma wrote.

"We also recommend that facilities find innovative ways of celebrating the holidays without having parties or gatherings that could increase the risk of COVID-19 transmission," she wrote, giving such examples as virtual parties or visits, providing seasonal music, movies and decorations and more.

"With the potential for a safe and effective vaccine on the immediate horizon, extra precautions now are essential to protect nursing home residents until a vaccine becomes available. Leaving the nursing home could increase a resident’s risk for exposure to COVID-19.”

At least two drug makers, Pfizer and Moderna, have announced they could have a vaccine ready by the end of the year. 

Federal officials have said a Pfizer vaccine will be distributed based on a state’s population and the states will decide who receives the vaccine first, the BBC reported.

Verma added in a separate Nov. 18 press release that, “The risk may be further increased by factors such as a resident’s health status, the level of COVID-19 in the community (e.g., cases or positivity rate), or attendance at large gatherings.”

The Oaks at Ashton Hills is located on Eagle Drive in Covington. Askew said about half of its residents are from Newton County, with the remainder from nearby cities like McDonough.

She said The Oaks has worked to overcome some of the challenges from COVID-19 this year through such projects as creation of a Mother's Day video in May.

It organized its daily activities for residents in smaller groups and put an emphasis on cleaning the facility, Askew said.

Families have regularly visited with residents through closed windows, she said.

"This year has definitely been a challenge," Askew said.

“Our residents have mostly adjusted,” she said.

The Oaks’ list of preparations for dealing with the disease includes open communication with residents and their families, regular cleanings, requiring healthcare providers to be screened before entering, and more.

Spokespersons for other Newton County personal care homes and nursing homes either declined or did not respond to repeated requests for comment for this story.