Early lockdowns, quarantining and mask mandates have been some of the safety precautions officials say have helped to keep all of the patients at four small Connecticut nursing homes COVID-free.

One year since the pandemic began, Cook-Willow Health & Rehabilitation Center in Plymouth, St. Joseph Residence in Enfield, Monsignor Bojnowski Manor in New Britain and Leeway in New Haven still have not recorded any COVID cases among patients.

Each of the facilities, however, have had several cases among staff members — the highest amount has been at St. Joseph, where 12 infections have been reported, according to the state’s data.

Ernie Leclair, facilities director at Cook-Willow Health & Rehab Nursing Hospital, credits his facility’s early response measures for keeping its 51 patients safe.

“Anyone who came into the facility from the hospital is required to test negative on two COVID tests,” Leclair said.

Leclair said when new patients come to Cook-Willow, they’re required to isolate in a separate area of the facility for 14 days.

“We didn’t know if the COVID tests were foolproof or not. So, we closed down our 11-room rehab wing of private rooms and turned it into an isolation and observation wing,” Leclair said.

While residents are there, staff treat them as though they tested positive for the virus.

“There is PPE out in front of their rooms. Any of the nurses or aids have to gown up, mask up, and goggle up,” he said.

LeClair said the facility also went into full quarantine and imposed mask mandates and other safety regulations three to four weeks before they became state requirements.

The facility also limited staff from coming in who also worked at other facilities.

“You had to pick one and stay with that one,” he said, adding this affected about a dozen staff members. A total of nine Cook-Willow staff members have contracted COVID since the start of the pandemic, according to the state’s data.

The facility also applied strict in-house regulations, similar to what they do during a typical flu outbreak, he said.

“If you lived on one wing, you were not allowed to go to another wing,” Leclair said.

Despite all the precautions, the early months of the pandemic was still a stressful time for everyone, he added.

“For a while, it was dicey. There was so much uncertainty. Information was changing on a daily basis,” he said. “We had no idea that outbreak would just run rampant through everybody. The major thing was we caught it early enough to really increase our odds of keeping it away.”

Overall, he said he has always looked at the impact of the virus in a broad scope.

“We instituted a quarantine based on some of the information that was coming in across the country,” he said. “We beat the virus to the punch.”

A positive side effect of the tight COVID-19 safety precautions is there was no flu outbreak, he said.

“On a normal year during the winter months, a handful of our residents would come down with the flu,” he said. “This year, we had no outbreak of any kind.”

He said the most challenging part of the pandemic has been making sure residents are in good spirits. He said many were depressed from being in isolation and having to adjust to speaking to family members through a computer screen.

“That’s where our recreation department blew it out of the water,” he said. “They would go room to room and be creative with games such as hallway field hockey where they would be passing a ball down the hallways.”

Other activities and special events throughout the year included hallway Bingo, being greeted at the window by Santa Claus, window visits by goats and horses, and watching live musical performances from a safe distance.

Leclair said a positive outcome of the pandemic was strengthening the bond between residents and staff.

“We have become even closer with our residents; we have had to be their family,” he said.

Maureen Porto, nursing director of Leeway, which is a 25-year-old HIV facility in New Haven, credits security director Blanca Ayala and the rest of the front desk staff, for the 25-patient facility remaining COVID-free.

“She’s very protective,” Porto said of Ayala. “She doesn’t let anybody get past her without being screened.”

All visitors are also required to complete a questionnaire, clean their hands, and get a new mask from the front desk.

“We don’t know where their mask has been,” Porto said.

Staff wasn’t always fully confident the virus would continue to be kept out of the facility, she added.

“We were waiting for it to happen any minute,” said Porto, whose facility has experienced seven cases among staff members, the state data shows. “We have been talking to everybody, making sure they know it’s not over and we still are at risk. We’re not taking any chances.”

She added the physical layout of the facility helps with social distancing.

“The 30-bed unit is quite spacious,” she said. “Everybody has a private room, and that helped tremendously.”

Other regulations include prohibiting takeout food. Also, face shields were worn early on in the pandemic, according to Porto.

She said the skilled nursing residents never go into the common areas, such as the main lobby — so they’re completely separate from the rest of the building.

Martin Julmisse, administrator of Monsignor Bojnowski Manor in New Britain, said early action and education were key to having no positive cases in the 60-resident facility.

“The moment that we received the blast fax from DPH, I automatically closed and put posters up on the door, letting my families know there was a pandemic going on and we were told to bunker down until it was figured out,” Julmisse said.

He locked every entrance to the building except one — the reception area.

“All the traffic is streamlined to only one door. All traffic goes one way,” he said. “Visitors are screened from that one entrance. If anything happens, I catch it right away.”

Julmisse said communication was also key with his staff members. According to the state’s data, six of the facility’s staff members have tested positive during the pandemic.

“It’s all about good communication, and putting the families and the residents first,” he said. “You got to put the residents and their well-being first. That was the goal, and how do I keep the residents safe.”

Connecticut Media Group