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Mother's Day comes with added challenges at Waco-area senior centers

Mothers and grandmothers living in assisted living centers and nursing homes may not get the expression of love they deeply desire this Mother’s Day: a hug, a kiss on the cheek, a touch of the hand, a face-to-face talk.

Because of the highly contagious novel coronavirus and the lethality of COVID-19, the disease it causes, among senior adults, senior living centers across the state are operating in a state of near shutdown. State guidelines urge no outside visits for residents with few exceptions, strictly monitored access for daily staff, extensive masking, gifts and cards placed in quarantine, major changes in collective meals and other group activities and more.

It is a new, confusing world for residents, workers and family members alike, even for those accustomed to handling the occasional flu or pneumonia outbreak.

“We have never seen anything like this before,” Quality Care of Waco administrator Jonathan Moore said. “The mortality rate, what we’re taking our precautions for, is so high.”

In addition to banning most visitors from outside, Quality Care does a temperature check on each worker before they enter, and those with any potential symptom such as a cough are not allowed in, Moore said.

The facilities have iPads so residents can have video chats with family and loved ones on the outside, and staff workers are doing what they can to help families connect.

“We want to allow as much interaction as possible and we will do anything we can … anything to make the residents feel wanted and loved,” Moore said.

Janet Meek Jones photo  

Janet Meek Jones (right) visits with her 98-year-old mother, Anna Marie Meek, through a window at St. Catherine Center after a weekslong coronavirus quarantine.

The pain of COVID-19 protocol changes is still fresh for Waco resident Janet Jones. Her near daily visits to her 98-year-old mother, Anna Marie Meek, were stopped cold by protocols that went into effect in mid-March at St. Catherine’s Center, where her mom has lived the past six years.

“It was during spring break, the second week of it, and I was literally on my way to St. Catherine’s when they called,” Jones said.

Jones, a reading coach at La Vega Primary School, was wrestling with how to maintain contact with her mother when a complication accentuated her feeling of helplessness.

Her mother had developed bronchitis and had been sent to the Ascension Providence emergency room for treatment. Jones could not visit or stay with her there, either. Compounding the frightening experience of a hospital visit with no family at hand for support, Meek returned to St. Catherine’s only to encounter a required two-week quarantine because of her trip outside the center, Jones said.

Center nurses helped facilitate video calls between mother and daughter, but it was weeks before they could see each other face-to-face, almost in person but separated by a glass window. Still, coming that close was bliss for Jones.

“We could actually touch — through the window,” she said.

Even without the daily in-person visits of the past and a new procedure to pick up and drop off Mom’s laundry, Jones keeps in touch with a nightly phone call.

“Since she’s in a very structured environment, she doesn’t see all the news about the pandemic,” Jones said. “She sees it more of something at St. Catherine’s that they don’t want to spread.”

With 38 years’ experience as the public relations director for Providence Hospital, Jones fully understands the reasons for the safeguards and is sympathetic with the nurses and staffers who have to work with the changes.

“I totally get it, but it’s hard,” she said.

For Darlene Schoenrock, the coronavirus shutdown came at an agonizing time. Her 94-year-old grandmother, Beatrice “Becky” Aldridge, who Schoenrock said is suffering from early stages of Alzheimer’s disease, had been living on her own with a daytime caregiver at her home in Ranger. Then a neighborhood passerby found her lying in a ditch early one morning with no memory of what had happened, and family members decided to move her to a nursing care facility in Hillsboro, then to Bellmead and closer to her granddaughter.

Staff photo — Rod Aydelotte  

Darlene Schoenrock connects via phone with her grandmother, Beatrice “Becky” Aldridge, who moved into The Atrium of Bellmead just a day before protocols to limit the spread of the coronavirus went into place.

The day after Aldridge was moved to The Atrium of Bellmead, coronavirus protocols shut down outside visits. Her first days in a new environment away from her home and without a familiar face to help her navigate the change left Aldridge understandably confused.

“It’s been horrible,” Schoenrock said. “She can’t understand why, (this has happened) and now we can’t see her.”

The Atrium’s staff worked hard to connect grandmother and granddaughter. They’re “awesome,” Schoenrock said. But visits via video call have been emotional ones, she said. She has been able to drop off food for her grandmother on a regular basis.

Both Schoenrock and Jones had high praise for nurses and staff members trying to facilitate communications during a time when visits are shut down. Ila Thomason, director of nursing at Ridgecrest Retirement and Healthcare Community, agreed her employees work as best as they can within the new restrictions to allow residents a chance to talk by phone or video call with family or wheel them to a spot where they can look out a window and see family members.

Cards and letters sit in a 24-hour quarantine before delivery, as do floral arrangements, but no perishable food items are accepted, Thomason said.

About 1,700 people live in full nursing care facilities in McLennan County, according to figures from the Health and Human Services’ Area Agency on Aging, but no estimates were available of those in the more than a dozen assisted living facilities operating in the county. The 2010 U.S. Census found 14.4% of the county’s population at the time was 65 or older, about 34,000 people.

It is important to keep contact with seniors in living centers for their emotional well-being during this time of near-quarantine, said Jim Ellor, a gerontologist and Baylor University social work professor.

“Simply being able to see a loved one through a window is a good thing,” Ellor said.

Seniors in assisted living centers or nursing homes can become anxious over changes in staffing, meal schedules and other parts of their daily routines, as well as problems in their families and the wider world, he said. Depression also is an issue for many.

Even without in-person visits, phone or visual contacts made on a regular schedule help and give a resident something to anticipate, Ellor said. Cards or small gifts can provide something tactile and serve as a reminder of the person sending them, but facility staff should be contacted first to see if such gifts are permitted or advised. He noted, too, that church, youth and social groups have the manpower and time to write and send cards to members in a residential center.

At the same time, those wanting to set up visual or phone contacts with residents should temper that interest with patience.

“Don’t be overly aggressive in contacting the (residential center staff),” Ellor said. “They’re very busy at this point. The biggest thing is to be kind to the staff and thank them for hanging in there.”

Creativity and advanced planning also help. Both came into play for Fred W. Hills, whose father Fred I. Hills celebrated his 89th birthday last month at Ridgecrest Retirement and Healthcare Community. The son, a McLennan Community College vice president, credited his wife, Barbara, for much of the celebration planning, with a large cake ordered and delivered the day before to allow for quarantine, birthday cards sent from relatives across the country and, on the birthday, a Zoom teleconference with family members.

“He was surprised by it and very happy,” the younger Hills said. “It’s lonely in there.”

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Local arts fund on way to $25,000 goal to help pandemic transitions

The arts nonprofit Creative Waco has already raised more than $5,000 toward a goal of $25,000 for a fund aimed at helping Waco artists, musicians, performers and arts-related businesses take steps into a future changed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Make it Through Corona fund started taking donations May 1 with a cutoff of June 1, and the promising start has Creative Waco director Fiona Bond optimistic that funds could soon be disbursed for mini-grants.

“The fact we already have $5,000 tells me there is a desire in this community to address that need,” Bond said.

As of Friday, 47 donors had contributed a total of $5,688.

With federal, local and state money available to help pay immediate bills and offset lost revenue caused by shop closings and event cancellations, the arts fund is intended to help artists take steps forward into what could be new territory, given coronavirus measures that impact crowd size, and customer concerns over possible exposure to the virus.

Texas Gov. Greg Abbott approved a gradual relaxing of his statewide order this month that allowed restaurants and most businesses to open to the public at 25% capacity. Operation at partial capacities and a possible public fear of virus exposure in crowds may mean fundamental changes ahead for many of the performing arts.

“For music, theater, opera and dance, it’s highly unlikely that they would be viable at 25% capacity,” Bond said.

Not only would reduced audience size play a factor in their futures, but the composition of those audiences as well, with vulnerable populations such as senior adults an important part.

Make it Through Corona grants would provide for training of new skills and equipment, changes in business models and revenue creation, high school ARTprenticeships and community art projects during what Bond called “the intermission,” the transition from the present COVID-19 crisis to a new economic and artistic equilibrium.

The fund is the second major COVID-19-specific initiative taken by Creative Waco to support artists, performers and others affected by a six-week shelter in place order meant to slow the spread of the coronavirus in McLennan County. It follows makeitinwaco.com, an online marketplace created to give Waco artists a platform to sell their goods and services.

Waco City Council Member Hector Sabido said he supports the attention paid to the needs of Waco’s arts community.

“It’s no secret that the arts have a positive economic aspect for a community,” Sabido said. “We’ve seen that in Waco and they’ve left a good lasting impression. For many people, the arts provide more of a definition of what a city looks like. It’s no secret it’s true in Waco.”

To contribute to the fund, go to www.creativewaco.org.

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A distinct possibility: 'Temporary' layoffs may be permanent

WASHINGTON — In late March, Britney Ruby Miller, co-owner of a small chain of steakhouse restaurants, confidently proclaimed that once the viral outbreak had subsided, her company planned to recall all its laid-off workers.

Now? Miller would be thrilled to eventually restore three-quarters of the roughly 600 workers her company had to let go.

“I’m being realistic,” she said. “Bringing back 75% of our staff would be incredible.”

Call it realism or pessimism, but more employers are coming to a reluctant conclusion: Many of the employees they’ve had to lay off in the face of the pandemic might not be returning to their old jobs anytime soon. Some large companies won’t have enough customers to justify it. And some small businesses won’t likely survive at all despite aid provided by the federal government.

If so, that would undercut a glimmer of hope in the brutal April jobs report the government issued Friday, in which a record-shattering 20.5 million people lost jobs: A sizable majority of the jobless — nearly 80% — characterized their loss as only temporary.

That could still turn out to be the case for some. The federal government may end up allocating significantly more financial aid for people and small businesses. And more testing for the coronavirus, not to mention an eventual vaccine or an effective drug therapy, would make more Americans comfortable returning to the restaurants, shops, airports and movie theaters they used to frequent. That, in turn, would lead companies to recall more laid-off workers.

Yet Congress remains sharply divided about additional aid, with some Republicans expressing concern about escalating federal debt. President Donald Trump’s top economic adviser, Larry Kudlow, said Friday that negotiations have “paused.”

If most layoffs become permanent, the severe recession the economy has slid into would likely last longer, the recovery would be slower and the toll on laid-off workers would be harsher, economists say. Unemployment soared to 14.7% in April — the highest rate since the Great Depression — and analysts predict it will rise still further in May. It could remain in double-digits into next year.

“For a lot of those furloughed workers, a non-trivial number will have no job to go back to, because the company they worked for will have failed or will need fewer workers than they used to,” said Claudia Sahm, a former Federal Reserve economist who is now director of macroeconomic policy at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth.

In March, MGM Resorts let go 63,000 employees and described them as furloughed, meaning temporarily laid off. Yet this week, the company acknowledged that many of those people will become permanently laid off by Aug. 31. The hotel and casino operator didn’t provide precise figures.

“We were optimistic at the time of the initial layoff in March that we would be able to reopen quickly,” Laura Lee, head of human resources, said in a layoff notice letter to the state of Michigan. “However, we have had to reassess our reopening date, given the duration and severity of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

In some ways, Miller, the restaurant owner, is more hopeful than she was when the shutdowns began: The states her company operates in — Ohio, Kentucky, and Tennessee — have begun to gradually reopen portions of their economies. Customers are phoning to see when they can make reservations. She hopes to reopen the five Jeff Ruby’s Steakhouses and two other restaurants the company operates by early June.

Yet business won’t be returning to what it was before. In Kentucky, the restaurants will be limited to 33% of capacity. They are putting six feet between tables in all their restaurants, thereby limiting seating. Miller estimates that the company’s revenue will plunge by half to three-quarters this year.

And expenses are rising because the company must buy face masks and other equipment for the workers it does recall and restock its food, drink, and equipment supplies.

If many of the job losses do prove only temporary, it would raise the possibility of a relatively swift economic recovery. It’s much easier for someone out of work to return to a former job than retrain for a new one or shift to a new industry. After the previous three recessions, the vast majority of people who were laid off lost their jobs permanently. Some were essentially replaced by new software or factory robots. In other cases, their employers folded or entered new lines of business.

After those recessions, the unemployment rate took so long to fall back to normal levels that economists began applying a chilling label: “Jobless recoveries.”

If a substantial number of small businesses are forced into bankruptcy, a similar dynamic could emerge this time, economists warn. Most job cuts by small companies in this recession have occurred because the business has shut down, whether by government order or from lack of demand, according to research released this week by Tomaz Cajner at the Federal Reserve and seven other economists. If those companies can’t reopen, those layoffs will become permanent.

Research by the JPMorgan Chase Institute has found that only half of all small businesses have enough cash on hand to last a month without revenue.

Even after government closure orders are lifted, many consumers won’t likely be comfortable shopping, eating out or attending concerts, movies or sporting events, especially as they used to — as part of tightly seated crowds. Not until the virus is well under control can a full economic recovery likely happen, economists say.

In the meantime, structural changes in the economy might help make many temporary layoffs permanent. It’s not clear, for example, when restaurants will need anywhere near as many workers they did before the virus struck.

Nelis Rodriguez has worked as a server at the M Restaurant & Lounge in the Warwick Hotel in downtown Chicago for 21 years. But revenue at the restaurant steadily disappeared as conventions that are critical for spring sales were canceled. She received two days’ notice of her layoff before the restaurant closed March 15th.

Rodriguez, 45, never thought she’d be thrown out of work, so she’d never thought about finding another job. But now she fears that as the coronavirus lingers, she might be laid off again and again.

“I think I will try to get out of the restaurant business altogether because I am afraid now,” she said.

At least 2 Waco meat processing plant workers test positive for COVID-19, though no concentration reported

At least two employees of Waco meat processing plants have tested positive for COVID-19, as concerns mount across the nation about the high number of meat industry workers contracting the novel coronavirus.

Both Sanderson Farms and Cargill confirmed Friday that at least one employee at each of their Waco facilities had tested positive for COVID-19. While Sanderson Farms declined to say how many workers had the disease, a Cargill spokesperson said one Waco employee had the novel coronavirus and has since recovered. Plants elsewhere have shut down as their workforce was hit with high rates of the disease. Waco’s Cargill and Sanderson Farms facilities have implemented protocols intended to limit the spread among workers, but local disruptions directly related to positive cases appear to have been minimal.

Nationwide, at least 4,913 meat processing plant workers had tested positive for COVID-19, and 20 had died as of April 27, according to a report released Friday by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Texas, at least 113 employees had tested positive and one person had died, although the report notes that many factors limited the CDC’s ability to accurately count workers who have tested positive or died from COVID-19.

“As part of the national COVID-19 response, the recognized risk to meat and poultry facility operation requires prompt action to decrease risks to workers, preserve facility function and maintain the food supply,” the report states.

Nationwide, the meat processing industry, deemed an essential business by the White House, employs about 500,000 people, all working in close quarters, according to the report. Close working conditions increase the risk for the novel coronavirus to spread within these meat processing facilities, as seen last month when a South Dakota facility became the country’s biggest coronavirus hot spot.

The CDC then started requesting data on the number of workers who tested positive for COVID-19 and the number of facilities affected by the disease, according to the report. By April 27, the CDC received data from 19 of 23 states reporting at least one worker in the meat processing industry testing positive for COVID-19.

In Waco, the Cargill employee who tested positive has recovered and returned to work, following a 14-day quarantine period after the person’s symptoms had cleared, spokesperson Emily Webster said.

The turkey processing facility, which produces presliced and other deli products and sells them under the brands Honeysuckle White and Shady Brook Farms, has implemented a series of measures to limit the spread of the disease, including mandatory 14-day quarantine periods for employees who test positive for COVID-19, taking workers’ temperatures, providing them with face masks, and increasing the cleaning and sanitation of the plant, Webster said. Cargill also now bans visitors, offers staggered breaks and flexible shifts, and increases distance between workers.

The Cargill facility employs about 700 workers, while Sanderson Farms employs more than 1,200, according to the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce website.

Sanderson Farms Chief Financial Officer Mike Cockrell declined to say how many Waco workers have tested positive for COVID-19, but he said the rate of infection among Sanderson Farm workers reflects the rates in the counties where they live. He added that the Waco facility has not had many people absent from work.

Sanderson Farms has facilities in Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Georgia and North Carolina. Cockrell said the facilities in Texas and North Carolina have seen low rates of infection among workers, while plants in Georgia and Louisiana have had higher rates, reflecting the rates of infection in their respective states.

The company had 15 employees test positive for COVID-19 as of April 2, according to a transcript of an investors conference call, while another 36 workers were awaiting test results at that time. Sanderson Farms contacted workers who were in close contact with those who tested positive and asked 30 of them to quarantine themselves at home with pay until they are cleared by a doctor. Another 204 employees stayed home with pay because they had symptoms of the novel coronavirus.

Additionally, Sanderson Farms sent all 415 workers at its Moultrie, Georgia, facilities who live in Dougherty County to quarantine themselves at home with pay, when the county saw a spike in the number of people testing positive for COVID-19, according to the call transcript.

Cockrell said all employees returned to work after testing negative for the disease but that the company has had workers test positive at every facility it owns.

Like Cargill, Sanderson Farms is providing workers with face masks, face shields and safety glasses, while also taking the temperatures of employees upon arrival and increasing cleaning and sanitation of the facilities. The company also installed partitions in break rooms to help workers maintain distance during breaks and has provided more covered space outdoors for breaks.

Attempts to reach Pilgrim’s Pride officials for information about the company’s Waco facility were unsuccessful.

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Top pics from the weekend: Virus Outbreak Protests, and more