A year on from the first COVID-related death in Scotland, leading care home operator Balhousie Care Group has revealed the emotional toll on its staff of dealing with the deadly virus. Yet as it warns that living with Coronavirus is “our new normal”, the award-winning provider says its care home ‘families’ have become even closer in the wake of the biggest challenges of their care careers.
Balhousie Care Group staff tell of the anxiety, stress and night terrors they are experiencing after their year living with COVID. They share their frustration and anger at a general lack of recognition for the care sector. And they speak of the extra bonds that developed among staff and residents.
The care provider has lost 41 residents to COVID and seen 306 positive cases among residents and staff. Ten of its 26 homes have had positive cases. Coronavirus is still an ever-present threat, says the award-winning Scottish group, and it warns of the long-lasting impact on the care sector as a whole.
“Ten of our 26 homes have had COVID-positive cases but the emotional toll on residents, staff and relatives across all of our homes has been huge. It has hit the whole Balhousie family hard and that’s something that continues as we all adapt to the fact that dealing with this deadly virus is our new normal,” said Jill Kerr, Group Chief Executive Officer at Balhousie Care Group which, as part of its own document of the pandemic, gathered testimonials from frontline staff.
Linda*, a carer who worked through one of the group’s worst outbreaks, at Balhousie Lisden in Kirriemuir where nine residents died after testing positive with COVID-19, said: “It was emotional coming home after work. I was scared for my family and felt I was putting them at risk being around them and working in the care home. But the hardest thing was the decline in the residents after contracting the virus. It was like a domino effect.”
The combination of working through the outbreak and not being able to see her own parents has led to Linda experiencing depression and anxiety. She is seeking mental health counselling to help with continuing night terrors and stress.
Rob*, a senior carer at Balhousie St Ronan’s in Dundee, where nine residents tested positive and all survived, said the episode had brought his team even closer together. “I felt I didn’t need to [reach out for counselling or support] as I spoke to my colleagues. We’re quite a close-knit unit of support to each other. We’ve worked together for a long time.”
But he shared his frustrations with the negative media stories surrounding care homes. “Initially the NHS got a lot of praise and with care homes in general there was a lot of stigma applied to them. For care homes it was all negative. I felt frustration that the praise was for the NHS. They do a good job but there are other establishments as well that do that.”
Jill Kerr said COVID was far from over for care homes, and that the last wave had hit the company hard: “To date, 10 out of our 26 homes have had positive cases, five of these in the last month. Every day we live with the danger of the virus entering one of our homes. This last wave has been particularly virulent and we are under no illusion as to how quickly it can bring a care home almost to its knees. Staff are absent, the remaining staff are caring for residents and supporting each other, and there is still a home to be run.”
She added: “I couldn’t be more proud of how staff have stepped up to the enormous stress, extra work and responsibilities the pandemic has thrown at them. Despite all of this, they have put their residents first above all else.”
Whereas the virus spread quickly in some Balhousie Care homes, in others there have been just one or two cases, and one home saw a 100% recovery rate. “As has happened in the general community, the virus has affected both homes and individuals differently. Our homes are microcosms of society, after all,” said Jill. “What has been a common thread is that each resident we have lost has had an underlying health condition.” She also pointed out that if a resident dies COVID-positive, COVID-19 is listed as the cause of death when it may not always be the main cause of death.”
Increases and improvements in staff testing – something Balhousie Care Group lobbied the Government hard for last year – has been a bonus in terms of control of the virus, said Jill. However, it has also meant more staff absences these last few months due to early diagnosis of asymptomatic staff.
“Whereas the first time round there are likely to have been asymptomatic staff carrying the virus undetected in our homes, this time around we’re testing staff three times a week. This has meant we are better able to control the virus, but it also means more staff isolating and being off work, and that entails bringing in staff from other homes and agencies.”
The care home operator’s business costs related to COVID are estimated at around an extra £500,000, which includes spend on PPE, new thermal imaging cameras, cleaning equipment, private COVID tests, employment agency costs and the extra staff hours needed to administer tests and new protocols, as well as dealing with the additional inspections which the country’s care homes have been subject to.
Jill said: “Although our business has been damaged both emotionally and financially, we will recover. The sad fact is that many of our fellow care providers won’t. We already know of smaller providers who simply don’t have the capacity or financial leverage to cope with the additional pressures that have been put on the care sector.”
She added: “The last year has seen care home staff and support staff have to expand their skill sets to get to grips with brand new practices, from wading through extra paperwork and gathering daily statistics to getting to grips with ever-changing infection prevention and control protocols.”
What has helped Balhousie Care’s staff pull through is their dedication to their job. In Linda’s words: “My passion for my job kept me going, that and making sure residents were okay.”
Jill Kerr added: “We felt the time was right to be fully transparent with how the last year has impacted us, in the hope that other care providers will follow. The public and politicians need to understand more fully what we as care home operators have been through and continue to go through and how the COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped our sector forever.”
In addition to increased levels of stress, and additional costs and time pressures, the reputational damage done to care homes, which have suffered a disproportionately high number of deaths due to COVID, has added to the sector’s woes, according to Balhousie Care Group.
Chairman Tony Banks said: “We completely accept that the Coronavirus Crisis has put massive extra pressure on the NHS and that they deserve all the praise and support they’ve had. But some words and actions of support from politicians for care homes is needed too. Our reputations have suffered hugely this last year. It’s time for the Governments, both Scottish and National, to invest in a campaign to boost public confidence in care homes, much as they have done with their campaign to promote the NHS.”
Balhousie Care Group’s own confidence campaign began this week with the message ‘Caring for our loved ones has never been more important’ in a marketing and advertising promotion that will use radio, print, mail drops, billboards and digital platforms. The £35,000 campaign will run over the next six months.
For more information about Balhousie Care Group visit www.balhousiecare.co.uk
*Names have been changed.
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