The chapel at Bethany on University, a retirement center near downtown Fargo, has been pressed into secular duty as an isolation unit to help contain a coronavirus outbreak among basic care residents.
A group of about 14 residents moved from their individual rooms into the chapel on Wednesday, Oct. 21, after the testing indicated they were infected by the virus that causes COVID-19. All were without symptoms when they were isolated, according to Bethany administrators.
“So far it’s OK,” Kelly said earlier this week, five days into her isolation period. “They just kind of dumped us in here all of a sudden.”
Kelly, who moved into basic care at Bethany just days before being placed in isolation, so far had not developed symptoms.
“In general it’s not been a terrible experience here,” she said. She acknowledges the need to segregate those who are infected to protect other vulnerable residents and to increase staff efficiency.
“I can totally understand that,” Kelly said. Residents have been told their period of isolation will end Thursday, Oct. 29.
But the involuntary shared living arrangements are no indoor picnic for at least one basic care resident, Jean Kelso, who said she is battling four serious autoimmune diseases and is taking immunosuppressant drugs.
She’s concerned about what she believes is her increased risk of exposure to a higher “dose” of the virus by being in a room of infected residents and what she believes are drawbacks from the lack of individualized care.
“I'm really angry. I cry a lot because I do have the four autoimmune diseases," she said. "I'm personally in a very scary, dangerous situation. They should let me be in my room and I'm not."
Kelso, who worked as a registered nurse before she became disabled by her illnesses, said she has diabetes, Lupus, rheumatoid arthritis and ankylosing spondylitis, a form of arthritis that attacks the spine, all autoimmune diseases.
As of Wednesday afternoon, Kelso said she remains free of COVID-19 symptoms, and said residents in isolation have been informed that they will be able to return to their individual rooms Thursday, as announced earlier.
Shawn Stuhaug, president and CEO of Bethany Retirement Living, said the use of the isolation unit in the chapel follows guidance from the North Dakota Department of Health, which has been consulted, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“We have to protect the other residents,” he said. “It’s safer because we can monitor them. We worked out this plan with the Department of Health.”
The state team working to protect vulnerable populations recommends “cohorting” residents, which Stuhaug said also helps to conserve the use of personal protective equipment for staff, who don’t have to don gowns, enter an infected room, and then doff the protective wear after caring for infected residents individually.
“That's just asking for trouble,” he said. “We have a lot of staff out with symptoms,” he said.
Since the pandemic started, Bethany on University had 70 cumulative positive cases among residents as of Tuesday afternoon, or about 8% of the 806 residents served during the pandemic, Stuhaug said.
That’s a much lower percentage than Cass County overall, he said, which had 1,076 known active cases as of Wednesday, according to state figures.
The chapel on the first floor of the Bethany retirement complex at 201 S. University Drive has been divided with curtain barriers and plastic sheeting to provide some privacy for residents, who also have access to community space, including a television with a video player and a collection of old movies.
“They did what they had to do,” said Bonnie Sims, another basic care resident in the isolation room. “They’re doing a very good job. I can’t complain, really.”
To pass the time, Sims said she sleeps a lot, watches old movies, and has joined in some rounds of singalong.
“We make do,” she said. “We can read. We can play cards.”
Sims, who has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, requires oxygen to breathe, but did not have any COVID-19 symptoms. “Many of us are without symptoms,” she said.
Some residents are coughing heavily, however, Kelso said. She wears a mask, but said most of the others in isolation aren’t wearing masks.
“I’m kind of staying tucked in my corner of the world,” she said.
Sims is glad to have the company. “I’d rather be quarantined here, around people, rather than be by myself,” she said. “As far as I know, we’re all OK.”
Sims, Kelly and Kelso all agree that one major drawback is that there is only one bathroom for all 14 or so residents in the isolation unit.
“It’s really sickening,” Sims said. “You have to wait and wait and wait for some people.”
Also, it took a few days for staff to retrieve clothes, and the isolation residents went days without bathing or a change of clothes, the three women said.
Creating the isolation unit in the chapel has been easier than when Bethany had to evacuate residents as a precaution during the record 2009 Red River flood, when residents were moved to St. Leo’s Catholic Church in Casselton, North Dakota, Stuhaug said.
“The flood, that was by far way more challenging,” logistically, he said.