‘No longer on edge’

Vaccination efforts offer morale boost to peninula seniors

A display at Heritage Place in Soldotna, Alaska, shows residents are thriving during the new coronovirus pandemic. (Photo provided by Aud Walaszek/Peninsula Clarion)

A display at Heritage Place in Soldotna, Alaska, shows residents are thriving during the new coronovirus pandemic. (Photo provided by Aud Walaszek/Peninsula Clarion)

With the number of vaccines given on the peninsula growing daily, and new guidelines from the CDC on gatherings, local seniors are seeing a glimmer of hope that things are getting back to normal.

After being mostly shut down since the beginning of the pandemic, the Ninilchik Senior Center has started the reopening process. Though they haven’t reopened fully, Executive Director Julie Otto said Monday that they’ve been offering activities that allow for the implementation of COVID mitigation protocols, such as bingo and lunch in dining areas, where tables are still socially distanced.

“That was mainly the driving force behind it: Which activities can we do safely?” Otto said. “That was a conversation that we had with the board: How do we manage getting people out for these critical social activities and still maintaining social distancing?”

Over the course of the pandemic, the availability of activities at Ninilchik Senior Center has been somewhat responsive to community COVID transmission. The center posts regular updates on their community Facebook page. Center events like Sew Saturday and yoga were canceled beginning last March. Homemaker services were discontinued and congregate dining in the center has not been offered consistently.

Otto said that people are not required to wear masks in the center but they’re expected to follow social distancing measures. Other protocols still implemented include keeping air purifiers in each room and having people wear gloves while touching things in common areas, such as during their buffet-style lunch services.

Otto also said that strong vaccination efforts have contributed to a major morale boost for Ninilchik seniors who come to the center. Ninilchik’s vaccine clinic, she said, has been proactive about calling seniors to be vaccinated so much that she thinks any senior who wants to get vaccinated has been able to do so.

Vaccines have made a big difference in seniors’ attitudes towards coming into the center, Otto said, emphasizing that the senior center acts as a community hub. Many people who come into the center, she said, are people who live alone and rely on the center for social interaction. Vaccines have also given people a sense of confidence.

“It’s night and day … the whole attitude has changed,” Otto said. “They’re no longer on edge and afraid to walk in the doors. I mean, they’re there, they’re smiling, they’re happy … it’s really been a good thing.”

The Kenai Senior Center announced last week that they would be reopening for scheduled group meetings and private appointments, with masks required to enter the building and social distancing guidelines in place. The center announcement said that limited medical transportation and congregate meals would be “coming soon.”

“After a year of being closed to public access, it is such a breath of fresh air being able to start opening our doors again,” wrote Kenai Senior Center Administrative Assistant Angela Clary. “The team here at the Center has missed everyone deeply and will be so glad to start seeing you again.”

Kenai Senior Connection President Velda Geller wrote in a letter for the center’s March newsletter that administration has been working with Kenai City Manager Paul Ostrander on how and when the center can fully reopen and what rules visitors need to follow.

“There have been physical changes to the Center to ready it for reopening,” Geller wrote. “Due to COVID-19, how activities are conducted may change or will be discontinued (at least for the time being).”

The Soldotna Senior Center, which is still closed to the public, is looking at declining COVID-19 case numbers and increasing COVID-19 vaccine availability in their plans to reopen in a limited capacity.

In Sterling, Senior Center Director Matthew Lundell said Tuesday that they are following CDC and state guidance and remain closed to the public. The center is still offering their Meals on Wheels program, with meals prepared and cooked in the center’s kitchen and then delivered by volunteers, but activities inside of the center have not resumed. Lundell said Tuesday that he was not sure when the center would reopen.

While senior centers across the central peninsula begin to explore reopening, seniors at Central Peninsula Hospital’s Heritage Place Skilled Nursing facility remain in lockdown.

Heritage Place Administrator Sandi Crawford said Monday that they are governed under “a whole different set of regulations,” than local senior centers because, as a skilled nursing facility, they are governed under Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, or CMS, rules.

In Alaska, Crawford said, nursing homes’ operation levels depend on two different numbers. The first is a region’s positivity rate. In that respect, Crawford said, the borough’s positivity rate of about 1.2% would put them in the “green.” The other number is the region’s average daily case rate for the last two weeks.

Crawford said that when that average 14-day case rate is less than five, they’re considered to be in “Phase 3.” When it is less than 10, they’re considered to be in “Phase 2,” and when it is more than 10, they’re considered to be at “Phase 1.” With an average 14-day case rate of 6.3 as of Tuesday, the Kenai Peninsula region is still considered to be in Phase 2.

“We’re just on the verge of trying to get into Phase 3, but we’re in Phase 2,” Crawford said.

Being in Phase 2 means that family members are allowed to come into the facility, but they have to be screened at the front door and have their temperature taken and then must stay behind a plexiglass frame when visiting. Families and residents are not allowed to touch and everyone is required to wear a mask.

Crawford said that about 72% of Heritage Place residents have received the COVID-19 vaccine. She said that number represents 100% of people who said they wanted to be vaccinated, and that she wishes that percentage were higher. Residents and staff of long-term care facilities were among the first to be eligible to receive the vaccine in Alaska. About 40% of Heritage Place staff have been vaccinated, Crawford said.

In terms of reopening, however, Crawford said that the number of people vaccinated doesn’t matter. Nationwide, she said, advocacy is building for CMS guidelines to shift from community COVID data points to vaccination numbers. Some facilities, she said, are 100% vaccinated and are still not allowed to reopen because their community’s positivity and average daily case rates aren’t low enough. At Heritage Place, fluctuating rates have meant that residents are allowed to have visitors one day and then aren’t allowed to the next.

In the meantime, Crawford said, the social isolation of residents has been “devastating.”

“There’s a big nationwide advocacy group … that people are getting signed up for, to really start voicing their opinion about, you know, what’s next for us?” Crawford said. “Because how long can we do this? It’s been very hard on residents.”

Still Crawford said, they’re hopeful that changes to the “phase” system are on the way.

“It’s been challenging, but I think, overall, we’re seeing a little bit more daylight. The mood’s a little better,” Crawford said. “These people are very resilient. They’re pioneers. They’ve been through a lot and so I think they’re coming out of it OK. It’s just been difficult.”

Reach reporter Ashlyn O’Hara at ashlyn.ohara@peninsulaclarion.com.

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