Highlands House ramps up testing after 12 residents test positive

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“Getting the diagnosis that I was positive for COVID-19 was an indescribable shock,” says Highlands House resident David Myers (77). “It’s a feeling that will stay with me forever. Knowing that I’m in such a high-risk category, it felt like a death sentence.”
by TALI FEINBERG | May 14, 2020

However, “As the days went on and I continued to be asymptomatic, I thought, ‘maybe I can get through this’. I’m now on day nine since my diagnosis, and I couldn’t have been better cared for,” he told the SA Jewish Report on Monday, 11 May.

Myers is one of 12 residents of Highlands House Home for Jewish Aged in Cape Town who tested positive for the virus after another resident who tested positive died on 2 May. Since then, the home has conducted 460 coronavirus tests in four days, and has the results for 457 of them, says Dr Leon Geffen, appointed by the home to oversee the crisis.

Geffen, who is doing the work voluntarily, has been on the panel of the World Health Organization Infection and Prevention Control Guidance for Long-Term Care Facilities, and is working with the Western Cape health department to develop an action plan for older people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He addressed concerned community members in a webinar on Sunday, 10 May, explaining that the home has 188 residents, with an average age of 83 years old. It has 250 members of staff, many of them outsourced.

All staff members were tested for coronavirus, and 26 tested positive. This means that there are a total of 38 positive cases at the home among residents and staff. This number may increase.

It’s unclear how the virus entered the home. In a statement on 4 May, the home’s management said, “It must be recognised that they [staff] travel to and from work in sometimes overcrowded vehicles.” Geffen further surmised that it might have been brought in by someone who was asymptomatic.

“We have had to change our model of care overnight,” said the home’s deputy director, Delia Kaplan, who became visibly emotional as she told residents’ families, “This is an unprecedented crisis. Our vision is to keep your loved ones as safe and as well cared for as we can, and also to care for and support our staff.”

Geffen says that staff who have tested positive have been sent home for a period of quarantine. Staff members are constantly screened with thermometers and checked for other symptoms. They have been issued three masks each, which are compulsory at all times. They are using alcohol-based sanitiser, and there is one dispenser for every three rooms.

Residents have also been issued masks, and have been told that when they leave their rooms to use the ablutions, they are to wear their masks. Should a staff member enter their room, they should put on their mask.

Some gaps in staff, especially in nursing, haven’t been filled as it’s impossible to find nurses at this time. After a number of kitchen staff tested positive, an entirely new kitchen staff was hired, and the kitchen was deep cleaned.

Geffen says all residents are confined to their rooms, except for the 60 residents in the special-care unit, who have mental disabilities. Their circumstances mean it’s difficult to confine them, but social distancing is being enforced as much as possible.

He says the usual Highlands House doctor is unable to attend to residents due to his age and co-morbidities. The home employed another doctor, and has subsequently employed a further six private GPs.

None of those who have tested positive are on a ventilator. They are being monitored closely, and are all well and mostly asymptomatic. Some have a low-grade fever and slightly lower levels of oxygen.

Asked if COVID-19-positive residents who don’t eat or drink because of nausea and appetite loss will be put on a drip to prevent dehydration, he explained that the home isn’t a hospital. If family would like the resident to go on a drip, they must ask for the resident to be taken to hospital.

Geffen says that 140 meals are served three times a day to residents’ rooms. Those that have tested negative can use communal showers. Those who have tested positive can’t use these communal areas.

Myers says he is in isolation in his room, where he is seen by a doctor once a day, and is monitored closely by nurses who test his oxygen levels and temperature. He is brought meals three times a day. He can’t shower or bathe as there is no bathroom attached to his room, but he washes with water from his sink. In the greater scheme of things, he understands this is a sacrifice that has to be made.

“I know people have been critical [of Highlands House], but I don’t think they are fully in the picture,” he says. “The team have been unbelievable, and I can’t praise them enough.” His daughter, Caryn Gootkin, agrees that she couldn’t ask for better care. While her father’s diagnosis came as a shock, she says she has been put at ease by the doctors caring for him and the management of the home.

Two other (COVID-19-negative) residents told the SA Jewish Report that they were satisfied with their care, and felt safe at the home. One family member of a (COVID-19-negative) resident expressed satisfaction at the home’s management of the crisis. However, she said communication with residents could improve as she often had to inform her mother of the protocol. A family member of a COVID-19-positive resident said he was also satisfied with the care his mother was receiving. Both family members said they would like the residents to be able to leave the confines of their rooms, but understood the difficulty in allowing this.

Asked why staff are allowed in and out on crowded public transport when other models exist, like at Jewish aged home Beth Shalom in Durban that keeps staff on site or at a nearby location, Geffen says many are primary breadwinners and primary carers in multigenerational families, and need to be at home. He says accommodation for staff that have tested positive and need to isolate may be provided, but cannot elaborate further.

Meanwhile, the granddaughter of Hannah Ruditzky, the 88-year-old resident who died on 2 May, describes her grandmother as a woman who had “a beautiful life”, and a proudly traditional Jewish home.

“She had Shabbos at her home every Friday night without fail. She lived for her two great grandsons, and was always knitting toys for children at various hospitals. She had the busiest social life, and worked as an administrator at a local shul until she was 80 years old. We will honour her memory by continuing the Jewish traditions she loved so much.”

1 Comment

  1. 1 Grace 14 May
    QSVDQmany thanks for your transparency in reporting on the management of Covid-19 cases.   Whilst I do not have a family member at Highlands House, it is reassuring to learn of the care that is being taken to give residnets the best care possible.

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