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Safeguards in place against COVID-19 for retirement communities

Photo provided by Jessica Bracco Members of the Bluffs community show fellowship and strength under a sign of “hope” made with paper hearts.

One of the most controversial executive orders out of Michigan this year was Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s (now rescinded) Executive Order 2020-50, “Enhanced protections for residents and staff of long-term care facilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.”

A popular belief is that this order was putting COVID-19 patients into nursing homes, but under further review, this order is contentious, but the accusations resulting from it are not to be found in Houghton.

Executive Order 2020-50 Section I-2 stated that, “a long-term care facility must not prohibit admission or readmission of a resident based on COVID-19 testing requirements or results in a manner that is inconsistent with relevant guidance by the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).” 

The Bluffs in Houghton is not a long-term care facility, but a retirement community.

“What happens is that everyone who moves into the Bluffs has their own private apartment that they can furnish themselves,” said Jessica Bracco, the executive director of the Bluffs. “They each have their own lock and key.” 

Bracco and the Bluffs’ staff are in very close touch with the local health department to ensure they are as up to date as possible, and keeping the residents healthy as possible. 

Part of that regular communication is staff education and “keeping COVID out.” Bracco stressed that one of the most important things is “reminding them (the staff) what a frail community we work in and how devastating it would be to bring COVID in. Keeping the staff informed and educated is one of the most important things.” 

“Should something happen,) we have a plan,” she said. “I think about it often, but you just don’t know until it happens. Of course, that resident would be quarantined to their room, because I don’t think anyone would take them, the hospital or anywhere else.

“They would stay quarantined until they were clear or unless they needed to go to the hospital. And of course, we would go to immediate lockdown.”

The Bluffs has not had a single COVID scare or any kind of threat or infiltration so far,  but “it’s scary not knowing how long this is going to go on for.” 

During the COVID-19 pandemic, life at the Bluffs has considerably changed. 

“We’ve had daily changes. Every single day it seems we have had new guides to follow. Policies, procedures, regulations from the CDC, from the local health department. I should mention that we’ve been very proactive since the beginning. We closed down our doors probably a week before lockdown,” said Bracco. 

The lockdown is a big change for the Bluffs residents, who are used to their personal freedoms. 

“Our residents can come and go as they please,” Bracco said. “We do have a little sign out procedure that they need to follow [under usual circumstances].”

The Bluffs also has 24-hour staff supervision. 

“Our residents have emergency pendants so that if they have any sort of need or emergency, there is always someone here,” Bracco said.

Following guidelines to the letter and ensuring the absolute safety of the Bluff’s vulnerable community is Bracco and staff’s goal.

“I feel we were ahead of the game and we took preventative measures. It was the right thing to do,” Bracco stated.

Michigan long-term care facilities relied on Health Department guidelines in regards to who was to be admitted into facilities. The Bluffs does no less, and follows added guidelines from Arcadia Communities, their parent company in Kentucky). 

“We eliminated allowing visitors, we started wearing masks, we did our screening procedures at the front desk for our staff and residents. So at that time I thought, ‘Boy, we’re really jumping the gun on this,'” Bracco said, “but looking back on this, we did the right thing.”

Until recently, the Copper Country had been very quiet in regards to numbers, but the uptick of local cases presents “a huge unknown” to the Bluffs. 

“Things were looking better and all of a sudden this huge increase in numbers, and then it was like, ‘oh boy, this is getting scary again,'” Bracco said.

The residents enjoy their freedoms and love being part of the larger community during usual circumstances, and seeing restaurants and stores opening up again made keeping an eye on residents and keeping them safe somewhat more challenging.

The Bluffs prides itself on being a very clean, sanitary community, and well-prepared. 

“Another thing we did, of course, was provide proper PPE for all of our staff and residents. We jumped on that right away. Right from the beginning,” she said.

Outside of staff procedural changes, life at the Bluffs for residents has changed drastically, and the staff are doing all they can to keep spirits high.

“We’ve definitely had our share of ups and down. Our staff really has been amazing at keeping our residents in really good spirits. Doing their personal shopping for them, spending time with them, making them laugh. We do fun dress up days, trying to keep them entertained,” Bracco said.

While visits are prohibited, the Bluffs has been stepping up with technology to try to keep the residents connected to loved ones. 

“We’ve helped them do one-on-one teatime events and chats via the internet with their family and friends, and virtual birthday celebrations. So we try to keep everything for them as normal as possible.”

Warm weather, social distancing and mask usage has allowed for some return to normalcy at the Bluffs, while still being vigilant. 

“We’ve started to eat back down in the dining room. We have a staggered meal program, and we’ve introduced patio visits outside, so things are starting to get a little bit back to normal,” Bracco said.

Joshua Vissers contributed to this story.

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