It's been a long pandemic for a lot of people, from the essential workers on the front lines to the families navigating virtual school for the first time to the residents who were ready to be done with the masks the day they were first asked to wear them.
It's also been a long pandemic for the residents of long-term care facilities, who suddenly found themselves restricted from the outings, activities and visits that made up their weekly routines. While the pandemic is by no means over, a decline in daily cases and a rise in vaccine availability has made it possible for facilities to begin working towards their version of a new normal.
"It's like a gradual step forward to a new normal that's right now," said Wade Menefee, director of nursing at Limestone Health Facility. "Of course, that changes quite frequently. It's our new normal for this week, I'll put it that way."
The facility made headlines last summer after an outbreak led to more than 100 residents and staff being diagnosed with COVID-19. They had to temporarily pause admissions and moved patients into a wing separate from everyone else, but they were back down to only two cases five weeks later. As of February, the facility was COVID-free and has remained that way since, Menefee said Friday.
"The weight of having COVID in your building is an indescribable weight," he said, and though the risk remains, they continue to work and hope that they can avoid another outbreak.
Part of that is keeping screenings, personal protection equipment and other measures in place even as they allow families to resume visiting their loved ones at LHF, which provides both short-term rehabilitation and long-term care. Menefee said the visits have been great for patients.
"We do have our own guidelines that we created for those visits, but that's been a huge morale booster for the patients to have their families come in and see them," he said.
Previously, some residents would only get interaction from staff, and while LHF staff aim to treat patients and residents as family, "it's just not the same," Menefee said. New guidance has allowed for patients who have received the COVID-19 vaccination to touch or hug, which for some may be the first time they've been able to huge a family member in more than a year.
"From a morale-boosting side of things, that's been huge," Menefee said.
Elsewhere in Athens, Limestone Manor administrator Delois Bailey said getting to have visitation again has really lifted residents' spirits.
"They're going back out to their beauty shops and families," Bailey said. She added a few have even made Mother's Day plans, something that was all but out of the question last year.
Limestone Manor also plans to keep screening visitors, checking temperatures and having families schedule appointments so they can contact trace in the event of a positive case, but Bailey said Friday that they've managed to stay COVID-free throughout the pandemic.
"It's been some work, making sure we do our cleaning, hoping that employees are being safe when they're out," Bailey said. "That was the biggest thing. I can't make them go home and stay home, but everybody is trying to keep sanitized, keep distance and wear masks."
Both facilities have also worked to boost vaccination rates. Limestone Manor, the smaller of the two, is fully vaccinated, according to Bailey, while Menefee said they've had three successful vaccination clinics and are working on a fourth for anyone who might have felt skeptical at first but has since changed their mind.
Menefee has consistently praised LHF's staff for their work to get the facility and its patients and residents through the pandemic, and he said Friday that they are actively seeking to join their staff.
"We're still the same locally owned and operated facility here taking care of the people of Limestone County. We never stopped from the beginning," he said. "It was an uphill climb, and we made that climb and got to the top of that hill ... but I attribute that to our staff. We have a great staff that never stopped."
Those interested in joining the LHF crew can visit limestonehf.com/careers/ to learn more.