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Nursing Homes Are Reopening In West Virginia, But Not Everyone Can Visit Yet


The elderly in this country have been among the most vulnerable populations during this pandemic. In fact, in most states, more than a third of fatalities have been nursing home residents and staff. As soon as it became clear how devastating the virus could be, long-term care facilities around the country went on lockdown.

Now, after more than three months, some states are saying these facilities can open up again if the homes themselves determine that it is safe. One of the first states to do this is West Virginia. And Rachel, I know you spent time last week in Morgantown, W.Va., speaking to families about just how complex these decisions can be. What did they tell you?


Right. They're really anxious, David. I mean, the staff, the residents in these nursing homes, their families, they all feel a ton of anxiety right now. I mean, on the one hand, they so desperately want this to happen because the isolation for residents has been so hard. But it's about safety, right? It's all been so touch-and-go. Situations can change so quickly with COVID-19.

Case in point - we thought that this was going to be a story about two families each getting to reunite with their loved ones who've been sequestered in nursing homes. But as you are about to hear, things changed. Before we get to that, though, some introductions.

Hi, nice to meet you.

LISA GIULIANI: Hi, nice to meet you.

MARTIN: This is Lisa Giuliani. Her dad is in a nursing home just outside of Morgantown. He's been there since late last year dealing with Stage 4 pancreatic cancer.

GIULIANI: It's a blessing and a curse, really. I'm sure it is very hard for a lot of residents up there not being able to see. But they're doing and FaceTime, you know? And they have so many nurses up there that just love them, are invested in them.

MARTIN: Across town, we meet Mark Shaver, who just arrived from South Carolina.

How was your drive?

MARK SHAVER: Oh, it was uneventful.

MARTIN: Uneventful.

M SHAVER: That's what we love...


M SHAVER: ...About 7 1/2 hours. And we're used to it.

MARTIN: He grew up in Morgantown. And his 96-year-old mother is in a nursing home here. He and his wife, Janet, decided that they had just gone too long without seeing her in person. So they made plans to drive up even if it just meant getting a glimpse of her from a distance.

M SHAVER: We said, we're going north. And it doesn't matter if I looked in the window. That's - we were coming.

MARTIN: But then something unexpected happened. The governor of West Virginia, Jim Justice, announced that the state would allow nursing homes to open up. Here's the context. West Virginia was the last state to report a confirmed COVID case on March 17. The governor had actually declared a state of emergency the day before, shutting down schools and then, soon after, non-essential businesses.

And it paid off because West Virginia has one of the lowest numbers of infections. So the nursing homes can now open. And both Mark Shaver and Lisa Giuliani got their hopes up, so much so that they agreed to let us come see their reunions. We went to check out one of the nursing homes ahead of time.

MARTIN: Hi. How's it going?


MARTIN: I'm Rachel.

This is where Mark's mom lives, a nursing home called Mapleshire. It's got about 106 full-time residents. The lawn is decorated with American flags and Fourth of July pinwheels. There's a tent set up outside the front door where we get checked in.


GREWELL: Ninety-eight-point-nine. Very good. We're good to go.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Sounds like we're ready to go? Yep? All right.

MARTIN: The center's administrator is Jeffrey Grewell. Jeffrey is wearing a mask, like all the staff here. But that's only been the case since April. He says the guidance he has gotten from his bosses and the CDC has changed from week to week - sometimes day to day, hour to hour - which means a lot of conversations with residents.

GREWELL: I think it's imperative we let them know what we are doing and being 100% transparent with that.

MARTIN: Have you had concerns or anxieties around opening up again?

GREWELL: Yes. Yes. We can control some of the risk factors here with staff and our residents because we've all been tested. We're all negative. But then when you start introducing some of the unknowns, you don't know where that family member has been.

MARTIN: Family visits are limited right now to 30 minutes once a day, two guests at a time, tops. Jeffrey is telling families that they have to be prepared that this could be temporary. If there's an outbreak, visits could be called off again. He says, during the lockdown, four residents died of non-coronavirus causes. And their families were allowed to be at their bedside in their final days. But those were the only exceptions.

Have you seen loneliness set in for some residents?

GREWELL: Yes. We've tried to do as much as we can. You know, if we see somebody that's maybe disengaged a little bit, to try and do a little bit of extra things for them to perk them up whether it's, you know, having a 20-minute conversation with them, playing a game of bingo with them. It's been tough, it really has been.

MARTIN: Has it been hard not to be able to see people in person?

BETTY SHAVER: Yes. It's hard. I can talk to them. But I do like to see them.

MARTIN: Remember Mark Shaver, the man who drove up from South Carolina to see his mom through the window of the nursing home? This is his mom.

B SHAVER: This is a wonderful place. I have no complaints, except pork chops. They don't quite fry them right (laughter).

MARTIN: Her name is Betty Shaver. And next month, she turns 97 years old.

B SHAVER: I think it's my son that's going to be here tomorrow. I have a wonderful family - 10 grandsons, three granddaughters.

MARTIN: Since March, her granddaughter, Dara Mayle, has been visiting her outside her window every Sunday after church. Dara is Mark's daughter. And she lives in Morgantown with her husband and two kids. I talked with Dara and her parents on Dara's back porch. She told me she's developed some tricks for window visits.

DARA MAYLE: If you talk into the middle of the pane, you can hear her completely. The first time, I cried the whole way home. She still thinks it's crazy that I came to her. Like, every time, she would be like, why are you coming to stare at me, you know (laughter)? I'm like, I'm not doing it for you. I'm doing it for me.

MARTIN: Because every day matters.

MAYLE: Whenever someone is going to be 97, like, you think about the fact that - I was just worried that a lot of our time was gone. It was just - it's sad that we lost three months with her.

MARTIN: I turned to Mark, her dad, who's been doing a lot of listening from the corner of the deck.

How are you feeling?

M SHAVER: Anxious, I think, is the word I would use. I'm anxious. It's difficult. And it's just being anxious about it. And again, you know, I'm the baby of the family. But I've always taken care mom. But I got great hands here. You know what I'm saying? But it's just I haven't put my arms around her and see what she's doing. So...

MARTIN: Can you put your arms around her today?


M SHAVER: Janet says she's going to whether she wants to or not.

JANET SHAVER: I don't care.


MARTIN: About an hour later, the Shavers arrive at Mapleshire.

GREWELL: Mark and Janet Shaver.

M SHAVER: All righty.


GREWELL: Well, you all are clear to go inside.

MARTIN: They each wear a mask - blue for him, pink for her. When they walk in, they see a lot of familiar faces.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Hi. How are you?

MARTIN: Staff members pass by and open their arms up like they're giving an air hug. Mark and Janet have to watch a video about the importance of handwashing and how to interact with residents.

M SHAVER: Says no hugs, Janet.

J SHAVER: I know.

MARTIN: They're escorted into a small, glass-enclosed dining room. And then Betty appears, moving slowly with her walker, all dressed up in a blue-flowered dress with matching sweater. She smiles at her daughter-in-law and then she fixes her gaze on her son.

J SHAVER: There's Mark.

B SHAVER: Well, there you are. I've never seen anybody that looks so good (laughter).

J SHAVER: Aw. Bless your heart.


B SHAVER: Don't make me cry.

MARTIN: And, yes, there are hugs.

B SHAVER: Oh, Mark.


J SHAVER: Aw. You look so good. Your hair looks great.

B SHAVER: Oh, she just kind of touched it up.

M SHAVER: Oh, did she?

J SHAVER: Did she? Oh, yeah.

MARTIN: Lisa Giuliani, remember, her dad is sick with cancer and dementia. She did not get a reunion. When the governor made an announcement that nursing homes could open up, she called Windy Hill Village, where her dad lives, and asked a staff member when she could come.

GIULIANI: She said, why don't you call back tomorrow, and then we'll have a better idea. I said, OK. And then that night, there was a Facebook post. We're back in lockdown.

MARTIN: A couple of kids in town had been on vacation to the beach in South Carolina. And they tested positive for COVID-19.

So where is...

GIULIANI: So anywhere - where do you want to sit?

MARTIN: We situate ourselves in her backyard right next to a massive fire pit overlooking the river. I asked her when she started to worry about the pandemic.

GIULIANI: You knew it was coming, you know? You saw, like, OK, it's in China. Well, oops, it's in Italy. It's in Seattle. It's in the nursing homes. And you're like, you know, you don't have to be a genius to see that it's going to spread.

MARTIN: She says the staff at Windy Hill have been great during these past few months.

GIULIANI: So they kind of, like, walk you through that. And they, you know - oh, he's done great. He's had a good day. He's had a bad day, you know? He's eating. He's doing this.

MARTIN: Talking on the phone with him, though, has been hard.

GIULIANI: He'd be like, when are you coming to see me? I'm like, well, Dad, we've got this stuff. And he's like, oh, OK. And then, the next time, when are you coming to see me? And so I kind of pivoted at one point and was like, I'll be there tomorrow.

MARTIN: But, of course, she didn't come because her dad's mind is deteriorating, along with his body. And she knew he'd forget by the time they talked again.

What's it like to not be able to see him for these months?

GIULIANI: It's weird because you feel this obligation to call. But, you know - but then it's also hard because you know that, like, man, when I see him, is he going to know who I am? So it makes it tough. So when I talked to him this morning, I was like, man, Dad, I wish you were here. We got weeds. And you were the best about picking the weeds.

He's like, oh, I'm coming. I'm going to come down there. And we're going to do that. I was like, (laughter) you need to get down here. It's a mixed bag. So there's, like, obligation and fear. Yeah. That's what it is. So it's a weird space and time. It's, like, precious and important and hard.

MARTIN: Two families who have endured a lot.


M SHAVER: All right, Mom.

B SHAVER: Have a good day.

M SHAVER: See you tomorrow.

J SHAVER: See you.


J SHAVER: Good seeing you.

MARTIN: Mark Shaver and his mom are already making plans for the next visit. Lisa Giuliani has more waiting to do.

GIULIANI: When this first started and he was so sick, I thought, huh, I wonder if that was the last time I'm going to see him, because you have that kind of stuff sneak in. But my dad has so much grit, he'll be around for a while, I think. I feel like I will see him again.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAMESES III'S "NO WATER, NO MOON") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.