Natural Selections: COVID at Cathedral Village

As COVID-19 deaths in America hit the 100,000 mark, there has been a lot of attention– TV news stories and front-page newspaper accounts– on senior centers and nursing homes, and rightfully so, as fully one-third of those deaths have occurred at these sites.

So as Roxborough wrestles with the virus, it seemed especially important to talk with Charles Gergits, who for the last five years has been the executive director of Cathedral Village, the continuing care retirement community off Ridge Avenue by the Andorra Shopping Center. How has Cathedral Village fared?

“We’re holding our own,” Charles told me last week, “we’ve been very fortunate so far. With 400 residents and a staff of 300, we’ve had a total of five residents and three staff contracting the virus, and there currently is one active case on staff and one active case with residents.” Sadly, he reports, “there have been two deaths here.”

But that’s– to me, neither skilled in journalism nor medicine– a remarkably low number compared to how the virus has ravaged so many nursing homes. How have they avoided what has happened elsewhere? “Our staff has talked about that a lot,” he told me, “ and we think it starts with a lot of little things. For one, our team is very experienced at infection control. This virus is more deadly than the flu, but we have not had a flu case in our skilled nursing facility in the last two years. We were also the first skilled nursing area to close to visitors.” They closed on March 8, almost a week earlier than many other centers. “We were proactive, which helped keep numbers down.”

He does worry about the reporting on his peers. “Senior centers have been villainized as far as reporting,” he offered, “because those who are elderly and those whose health is compromised are the ones hit hardest by the virus, and that’s who resides in skilled nursing facilities.” He feels that perspective has not been communicated in these pieces. Point taken.

For both residents and staff, there has been “a lot of anxiety” over the unknown path of the disease. “I feel bad and sorry for the residents and their families,” he continued. “It’s hard for the residents not to visit and socialize; hard for the families not to see them. I feel bad for what’s going on.”

But it has also “made the community stronger,” he told me. With the dining rooms closed, staff delivers food to each resident’s room, and one staff member’s job is to go shopping for three or four hundred people. When the deliveries were being made recently, “every door and window had a thank-you sign on it. Our residents are increasingly appreciative of the little things and very supportive of our staff– we’ve been flooded with letters and signs.

“And our staff,” he continued, “has a renewed sense of pride. It’s been good to see the emphasis nationwide on staff as frontline heroes– it’s good to see the pride. At the same time, there is this anxiety of not knowing whether you might contract it, of bringing it home to your family, or bringing it to one of the residents– and they couldn’t live with that.”

Knowing this has been unbelievably stressful on staff, he says they have tried very hard to be flexible with their staff, accommodating to adjustments like childcare, which collapsed for many in the pandemic. “We also have apartments we can put staff up in when we need to,” he said.

I called him from my home, where I am working, but Charles was at Cathedral Village. “Everything we do is hands-on,” he volunteered, “we’ve all been still at work, haven’t been able to work from home at all. And we’re all working long days, staying here when needed.” I joked about his frontline staff earning combat pay, and he quickly said, “yes, we’ve made adjustments to pay at times.”

His parent company, Presbyterian Senior Living, for whom Charles has worked for 20 years now, “has been very supportive, getting us the PPE we need. We have enough for our residents now. But if something happens, kike if there is a mad rush, getting more equipment worries me.”

Charles says “we are very thankful for the support we’re received from the Roxborough community– people have volunteered to make masks and shields for us, and there have been lots of posts online.” He’s thrilled at the outpouring of support from our community. As the hospital sign notes, we are #RoxyStrong.

Moving forward, he says “state and federal governments need to make sure skilled nursing staff have more support faster. People were really focusing on hospitals at first– they were not really focusing on skilled nursing facilities.” That needs to change.

And he confesses that “like everyone else in the United States, we’re getting a little tired of being inside, coming up on three months now. But I do believe that some of the guidelines have prevented the spread of the disease– social distancing and wearing masks have helped. And I’m nervous, as most people are, as things start opening up– will COVID rebound? Will there be an increase?”

He hopes not; we all agree. But here’s some love and prayers to the entire Cathedral Village community, staff and residents. We look forward to seeing you outside again soon.

By Mike Weilbacher, Executive Director

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