FEATURE: Coronavirus in Erdington’s care homes

Words & original photography by Ed King / Pic of Jean & Charles Beattie courtesy of Sarah Yates

As cases of coronavirus continue to skyrocket, the number of care home residents contracting COVID-19 heads towards an equally dark horizon.

At the time of writing, the latest government figures show 133,495 reported cases across the UK – resulting in over 18,000 deaths.

But with nearly 2,000 of those registered to residents of care homes, more than doubling over the Easter weekend, by the time you read this the number will be even higher.

In a recent survey conducted by Jack Dromey MP, there were ‘19 cases of Coronavirus in Erdington Care Homes, either confirmed or suspected’ – with six residents having died either in their facility or after being moved to hospital, with another 11 cases waiting for confirmation on cause of death.

Alongside the increasing strain on supply chains crucial to the healthcare sector, such as manufactures of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), it’s arguably a case of when and not if. The only question left, is how much worse will the impact of coronavirus be for care homes and their residents?

He went in a week ago today,” tells Jean Beattie, whose husband, Charles, is currently in Heartlands Hospital being treated for coronavirus. “First of all, he went onto the pre-COVID ward, where they asses them. Then, once the test came back positive, they moved him to the COVID ward, and he’s been there the rest of the time.”

A resident of The Ridings Care Home in Castle Vale, Charles Beattie has underlying dementia and was referred to Heartlands after suffering a fall whilst getting out of a reclining chair. “Because his oxygen saturation levels were so low, which makes him dizzy and wobbly on his legs, he over balanced,” explains Jean, “and hit his head on the chest of draws.”

I think the paramedics forwarded the information (to the hospital) that there was COVID on the unit, so he automatically went to the pre-COVID ward. But he wasn’t admitted because of his general health.”

But treating the physical symptoms is only half the battle for some patients, and Jean also has concerns around her husband’s dementia.  

He’s on a high dependency unit within the care home… they know him, and he knows them. They are his security blanket. In fact, he relates more to them now than he does to us, his family. Because he’s with them 24/7… It’s the people that are looking after him all the time that are his immediate family now.”

Home is where the heart is, or where the mind can find peace. But what protection do both staff and residents have if that happens to be a care home facility?

They’d got nothing,” tells Jean – who explains the required PPE only reached The Ridings over Easter, “just the ordinary paper masks. And they’ve got COVID positive patients in there at the time; and had lost some of them as well.”

All they’d got were their plastic aprons, the gloves that they always have, and the paper masks that everybody has in a care environment – be it a hospital or whatever.”

Quick to support the staff at The Ridings, who Jean believes “should be paid in gold bars not pence,” the adversity health practitioners face during the coronavirus crisis should also highlight their worth.

It’s really important that they are pulled into the equation,” tells Jean, “they’re really have been forgotten. I understand why all the concentration, in the first instance, was on getting care and service into the frontline of the NHS. But they (Government) should have realised that this was a bombshell waiting to explode.”

I’m full of admiration and I’m very, very grateful for everything they’ve done in Heartlands (Hospital). But he needs to be with his family. Which is the home. Once he’s there, no matter what the outcome, I will feel happier.”

Away from the fierce debate over PPE, there is another supply chain crucial to the health care industry – a cookie jar the general public have their fingers stuck in too. Food.

The most difficult thing we’ve had to deal with is the food chain,” explains Anglea – an administrator at Cedar Lodge Nursing Home on Kingsbury Road.

We’ve used online shopping for many years, because as it gives the residents more variety. I’ve got Asda’s website in front on me now; the slots only go up to 7th May and every single one is sold out. Every one from 6am to 11pm is sold out.”

Going direct to the supermarket shelves can be tricky too, as care homes are currently not exempt from the store by store rationing. “We take a letter to prove that we were purchasing for a care home,” explains Angela, “but one local supermarket wouldn’t let me buy three bags of porridge – even though I was buying for a care home.”

The day before I’d been at Spar in Wylde Green, they were wonderful. Sainsbury’s at Castle Vale, they didn’t restrict us either – I said to the person going shopping, make sure you’ve got your letter with you. But he went in and nobody stopped him. So, we were able to get what we needed.”

For most of us, bare shelves and item restrictions are a frustration. But when you’re cooking over 100 meals a day, it threatens lives. Not to mention the mental stress put on already vulnerable residents.

They can’t have any family come and visit,” tells Angela, “the regular entertainers and exercise classes… we’re not able to have those people come in anymore.”

If they were to have restrictions on their food or diet… to be honest I can’t imagine what sort of impact that would have on them.”

Sadly, concerns over both PPE and food in care homes are not uncommon. The recent survey conducted by Jack Dromey MP, contacting all 47 care homes across the Erdington constituency, identified ‘9 care homes (that) have indicated that food supply is an issue,’ raising concerns about ‘both item limits and lack of availability for online deliveries’.

Then there’s the issue of PPE, which most people at the end of an Internet connection will know is a widespread concern across the country.

In Erdington, 48% of the 47 care homes still have worries over accessing the right protective equipment – whilst ‘one care home has only received 600 masks since the start of the crisis, with staff now having to re-use masks due to a shortage.’

But, in Erdington at least, there is a plan to help care homes ‘secure adequate amounts of food needed to feed their residents.’ In a letter to Tesco’s CEO, David Lewis, Jack Dromey has asked for two clear changes in operational policy:

  • Exempt care homes from the item restriction limit that is in place for regular shoppers
  • Create special online delivery slots to enable care homes to access online deliveries – preventing their staff from making unnecessary trips to the supermarket where they risk contracting COVID-19

The Government must urgently reassure care homes that they will not be forgotten during this crisis,” says Jack Dromey MP. “They deserve with the NHS full access to PPE. Care home workers, as well as NHS staff, are delivering vital care in extremely dangerous situations. They are both working in close proximity to the virus and therefore both deserve proper protection.”

That, and the ability to feed their residents; regular meals shouldn’t be too much to ask. Now is a time for community and kindness. And someone keeps telling us ‘every little helps.’

To find out more about the spread of coronavirus, from the Office for National Statistics, visit www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/conditionsanddiseases

For the latest information from Public Heath England, visit www.gov.uk/government/organisations/public-health-england

To find out more about the work being done for Erdington by Jack Dromey MP, visit www.jackdromey.org

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