RiverWoods Durham COVID19 Update

While the novel Coronavirus has proven to be treacherous to people of all ages, the generation that is indisputably most at risk for the disease are those 65 and older, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). COVID-19 has the capability to spread like wildfire through senior living facilities. With a threat as real as this, RiverWoods Durham is trying to fight back against the virus through strict regulations that keep the residents safe. 

RiverWoods Durham first opened its doors to residents in November of 2019, and is one of many senior living facilities grappling with the pandemic. Due to the high concentration of people vulnerable to COVID-19 in the facility, the RiverWoods administration has also implemented a series of new requirements designed to limit contact between individuals and to comply with the guidelines recommended by the CDC. Employees and residents are instructed to wear masks and stay six feet apart at all times, rules that have become the new normal for everyone in the RiverWoods community. These rules are made to ensure residents’ safety, but they also limit residents’ independence. Not only are RiverWoods’ precautions during this pandemic posing new challenges to the residents and employees, but the relatives of residents are also having a hard time maintaining a connection with their family members. 

Laurel Gordon (‘19) is just one of those in the community who has relatives living at RiverWoods. Gordon describes her grandparents as “active and independent individuals.” The pandemic has limited their ability to enjoy everyday activities they enjoyed outside RiverWoods, and as a result Gordon and her family express concern about the amount of time the pandemic will keep her grandparents inside the facility. “We would love for our grandparents to have their independence back and be able to do what makes them happy,” said Gordon. Although the pandemic has impacted the lives of residents, the precautions that are being taken are for the safety of all staff, residents, family, and friends within the RiverWoods communities. 

To add another layer of safety for the residents, RiverWoods has made COVID-19 testing mandatory for all staff. As of April 19, RiverWoods communities have tested a total of 900 staff and residents via a drive-through test site. 700 staff members and 200 residents that use RiverWoods’ healthcare have been tested over the last four days. RiverWoods has three communities: in Durham, Exeter, and Birch Hill in Manchester. As a result of their drive-through testing, the RiverWoods Exeter community is also offering testing for other community care facilities. 

The April 19 testing revealed that some staff and residents at the RiverWoods Birch Hill community in Manchester have tested positive without displaying any symptoms. In these cases, RiverWoods contacts the families of the infected individual and they are instructed to isolate in either homes or rooms. RiverWoods plans to keep testing and retesting staff and residents, as they continue to state: “Knowing is better than not knowing.” As of the 27th of April, three Birch Hill residents have passed away due to the novel Coronavirus.

The dining room at RiverWoods Durham, a staff that consists mainly of high school aged servers, is one example of a department that has had to dramatically change their operations. Most of the teen employees have been furloughed as of April 10th in order to reduce traffic in and out of the building. The dining room has also transitioned to a takeout style dining plan for residents in place of traditional sit-down meals.

Kate Domaleski (‘21), a student at Oyster River High School and one of the furloughed servers, said she agrees with the move to reduce staff. “Our main concern is keeping the residents safe and us too,” Domaleski explained. “[Administration] wanted to keep as little people in there as possible to minimize the spread [of the virus]. Also a part of me thinks that if a resident came into the dining hall to see many people, they would be concerned as opposed to seeing fewer people… they might feel safer.”

Alison Walsh, the dining room manager at RiverWoods Durham, elaborated on the numerous precautions taken by her staff since the outbreak: “We are all wearing masks and we have sanitizer that we spray down multiple times a day. We have hand sanitizer at each work station [and] we’re doing the takeout scenario so there’s no buffet. We set up lines at the counter so they can practice their social distancing and have ‘X’ markers on the floor so that they get a visual of what six feet looks like.” 

Although the safety precautions are strict, residents and staff are still keeping their spirits up. “For the most part, everyone’s been really positive,” Walsh said of the residents’ attitude towards the changes. “The challenging ones have been the ones who have had to quarantine,” Walsh referred to the new policy in which any resident that leaves the facility must then quarantine for fourteen days. “Those are the ones that have a hard time adjusting.”

Not only are RiverWoods’ precautions during this pandemic posing new challenges to the residents and employees, but the relatives of residents are also having a hard time maintaining a connection with their family members. 

The visiting restriction has made it difficult for people like Gordon and her family to check in on her grandparents during the pandemic. “The last time I visited my grandparents was over [winter] break,” explained Gordon. “I stay connected to them through email and Zoom. About once a week they ask for a couple of items from the grocery store which I can pick up and drop off at the front gate with a security guard. Those things then get delivered to them through someone that works there and has the authority to see the residents.”

So far, RiverWoods has been keeping the public updated, releasing almost daily updates in the form of memos and YouTube videos that explain what actions are being taken. While the main purpose of the videos is to inform residents, they can help let others, such as family and friends, know what is going on inside the facility. 

Justine Vogel is the CEO of the RiverWoods Group, and is also the person conducting the almost daily updates for residents, staff, friends, and family. On April 1st, Vogel published a video in which she expanded upon the closed campus the RiverWoods communities initiated. Closed campus means RiverWoods’ doors will not open for visitors and family unless under extreme circumstances. “I know how hard it is for you to not be able to see your loved ones, but right now our focus is on keeping your loved ones safe, healthy, and strong. The best thing we can do is keep you and everyone else away from them,” Vogel said in the video. “What we are trying to do is create a bubble around campus [that is] as possible; keeping our residents from leaving campus and having the only folks that enter to be the essential employees that do the essential functions to operate our communities.”

Despite the anxiety of the COVID-19 pandemic and the danger it poses to the residents of RiverWoods, employees do their best to keep the atmosphere fun and light, while still encouraging healthy social distancing. 

“The biggest thing we did was write jokes and things on the bags their food was in and seeing the residents laugh, even though the jokes weren’t that good,” Domaleski said. “We had a lot more options, like ice cream, which I think made them happy to have more access to the food they like getting. We also just avoided talking about the virus… [the residents] would ask us a lot about online school and things. The company is doing small things so they feel like they’re part of a community. Obviously not everyone’s the happiest right now, but we’re trying to create an atmosphere of good vibes.”

And though things might seem bleak among the news broadcasts, these efforts to make RiverWoods a safe environment for its residents seem to be working so far. “I am always a little nervous when it comes to [my grandparents],” Gordon said, “but I think that RiverWoods is doing a really good job. My grandparents seem happy while also staying safe.”

Written by Chase Amarosa and Ella Gianino