PITTSFIELD — When the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the United States in March from Washington State and began its deadly rampage in Massachusetts nursing homes, our local communities naturally reacted with shock and fear at the damage wrought by this unseen and barely detectable disease. Almost immediately, people began asking aloud how this could happen in a healthcare facility where our daily mission is to protect and nurture life.
Every health care provider, every hospital administrator, and everyone who works in health care has asked themselves the same question. We knew from the earliest outbreak in other states that this deadly virus was highly focused precisely on those for whom we care — frail, elderly and health compromised adults.
The state's vital statistics on COVID-19's destructive path through Massachusetts confirms what we knew but could not stop: Of the more than 8,000 deaths recorded in Massachusetts, just over 5,000 have occurred in long-term health care facilities; 98 percent of the total deaths in Massachusetts were among people with underlying health conditions; those aged 80 and older accounted for 55 times the rate of deaths compared to those aged 50-59.
But those numbers don't tell the whole story about the battle we waged against this killer. Early on, we had limited ability to recognize COVID-19 when it occurred because the diagnostic markers were unclear and testing generally unavailable. So, we shut our doors to all but essential employees and medical personnel; we secured personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect our staff and residents; we took temperatures multiple times daily; we separated residents who had tested positive from those who had not; and told staff who exhibited even the mildest symptom of the disease to stay home. We sanitized our facilities repeatedly, over and over, again and again.
We are trained to pay attention to patterns, but this invisible, persistent enemy defied us at every turn. Some residents with no symptoms would test positive; residents who were asymptomatic one day became gravely ill the next and then died. Highly rated facilities across the state had among the most devastating outbreaks while lesser quality facilities appeared to escape with little or no damage. Many residents who fit the risk profile were spared while others who did not would suddenly succumb.
As our caregivers continue to grieve the loss of life that we have all suffered, we remind them every day that their heroic efforts saved more lives than we lost. They fought with every ounce of energy they had and put their own personal safety at risk, but because of who they are, because of their professionalism and their love for their residents, they don't think about those we saved; they think about those we lost.
Despite the trauma that we have all suffered, our passion for what we do to protect the most vulnerable in our community endures. We are grateful for our family members who continue to express their love and support for our staff for the tireless battle they fought even though they lost a loved one in that fight. We will never forget our staff members, emotionally and physically crushed by the loss of their beloved residents, who not only continued to return to work but who asked to work more hours because they knew we needed everyone in this fight.
The COVID-19 story is mostly being told with numbers, but you cannot put a number on the lives that were saved or the importance of the emotional comfort that our caregivers provided to a resident in the final hours of their life. You cannot measure courage or the healing power of compassion, but we know those intangible qualities are the essential characteristics of our caregivers, who were already doing the hardest job there is before the coronavirus arrived and attacked us with everything it had.
Many would have run from this fight, but our staff did not. Many communities might have shrunk back, but our surrounding communities gathered us all in a loving embrace and gave us the strength to fight on when our caregivers needed it most. We remain vigilant against a potential secondary wave, but today we are defiant and more determined than ever before to meet this enemy head on.
We are all battle weary, but we are not broken. We are not beaten.
William C. Jones is the president of Berkshire Healthcare Systems, Inc., a not-for-profit provider of senior living, nursing home and hospice care across Massachusetts.