Like a sneak thief in the night, COVID-19 stole into The Convalescent Home of Winnipeg undetected.
No one knows how, exactly, the virus got into the Hugo Street personal-care home; none of the 84 residents or any staff members were showing any symptoms when the first positive case came back on Dec. 6.
But the virus made its presence known with force. Little more than a month later, the numbers tell a frightening tale.
Eighteen of the 84 residents died, the latest — a woman in her 60s — reported Thursday. Sixty-three residents contracted the virus and have recovered. Three others have somehow managed not to get sick.
Vulnerable seniors living communally in personal-care homes in Winnipeg, elsewhere in the province and across Canada have been easy targets for the virus; 364 residents and one staff member have died in Manitoba long-term care facilities. Another 1,029 residents and 672 workers either currently have, or had, COVID-19.
Margaret Ward says she immediately noticed things had changed the day she was allowed to leave her room at The Convalescent Home to visit her floor's social area.
"It was usually quite full (but) I went out there and there were only two ladies sitting there and that was it," the 82-year-old Ward says. "There are seven ladies on my floor that we no longer have. One of them, I used to be best friends with her. We would have tons of laughs. Now those seven ladies are not there.
"It will be so lonely."
The situation has been very difficult inside the facility, says assistant director of care Brenda Hodgson.
"They are never just residents to us," she says. "They are someone's wife or husband, mom, dad, oma or opa, aunt or uncle, sister or brother or friend.
"Every life has value, and I can only hope that some good will yet come out of all of this, even if it is to remember to never take each other for granted."
The outbreak hasn't been officially declared over at the home, but for all intents and purposes, the novel coronavirus is in its rear-view mirror.
The Winnipeg Regional Health Authority says an outbreak isn't officially over until a facility has gone through two incubation periods — a total of 28 days — after its last positive case has resolved.
But what then? What happens in a personal-care home after it has been ravaged by COVID-19? The Convalescent Home, an organization that has been around since 1883, experienced the Spanish Flu pandemic in 1919.
There are 39 long-term care facilities in Winnipeg, including the St. Amant health-care facility, where residents include children and adults living with special needs. The most recent WRHA report last week says that, as of Jan. 5, there were outbreaks at 26 of them.
Some care homes experienced a first wave of COVID-19 but after outbreaks were declared over, new cases were confirmed.
Somehow, four facilities in the city — the Luther Home, Vista Park Lodge, Donwood Manor and Golden Door — haven't been visited upon thus far by the virus.
Tuxedo Villa Extendicare administrator Catherine Creran knows that facility is among the fortunate ones. The cases there have, so far, staff members, and a recent outbreak was declared over on Dec. 29.
Creran continues to count Tuxedo Villa's lucky stars; residents there are scheduled to receive their first of two vaccine injections next week.
"We followed all the procedures of the WRHA," Creran says, referring to the residents' good fortune. "Everyone is screened before they come in. Even when you have just staff there's still a lot of work. You isolate as soon as possible.
"This has been a tough year with a lot of work."
Creran says they'll never know whether it was cleaning and sanitizing, fast isolation of residents and staff, something else or a combination of things that has spared residents to this point.
"All of the above? It's tough to say," she says. "You don't even know with this virus who has it. They can be asymptomatic. It is such a sneaky virus. I feel so bad for all the other care homes."
Perhaps, not surprisingly, the first thing a care home has to do when declared COVID-free is to do an "effective cleaning and disinfection."
A WRHA spokesperson says facilities are, obviously, expected to continue to follow restrictions and proper protocols in an effort to prevent another outbreak, including continued screening of staff, physical distancing, proper hygiene and cleaning.
"(They) can also begin implementing plans to reopen common dining areas with consideration for physically distanced meals and developing plans for post-isolation resident life, including things like recreation and allied health interventions," the spokesperson says.
Residences should continue to encourage virtual visits with family members, but they can also reopen visitation shelters. Facilities with clean bills of health can begin to look at welcoming new residents along with transfers between facilities, both of which are suspended during an outbreak.
Recovered residents should be monitored and screened twice daily, with any changes to their condition brought to the attention of a doctor or nurse practitioner.
Exercise should become part of the routine again, the WRHA spokesperson says.
"Residents would be encouraged to move around to build strength and prevent blood clots," the spokesman says.
Hodgson says The Convalescent Home was particularly vulnerable to the quick spread of the virus because of its high percentage of shared rooms, many of which have four beds.
And with those people separated only by a curtain, many of them who also tend to wander, COVID spread so fast that just 10 days after the first positive case, all but three residents had tested positive.
"We will be restarting small–group recreational activities again, including our virtual visits with families and friends and in–person visits utilizing our outdoor pod." – Assistant director of care Brenda Hodgson
Recreation was one of the first things to go; that room was used at first as a six-bed isolation space before residents were moved back to their rooms when the it became clear that the virus was everywhere.
And 25 employees eventually tested positive, and were required to isolate at home, which had a tremendous impact on staffing.
Hodgson is cautiously optimistic about moving forward once they get the all-clear from the province.
"We will be restarting small-group recreational activities again, including our virtual visits with families and friends and in-person visits utilizing our outdoor pod," she says. "In time, we will also be able to invite back our hairdresser which, I know, is a high priority for many."
And a more poignant event is in the planning stages.
"We are planning on holding a celebration of life for each of our (deceased) residents... to allow us, as a family of residents and staff, to honour each life taken and to grieve together," she says, adding a second gathering — with families — will take place when visitors are allowed back inside.
Tragically, facility has vacancies — 18 beds are now open — and Hodgson says she expects to begin accepting applications for admission sometime next month.
As for the survivors, they're looking forward to what is ahead.
Terry Moon says he can't wait for everything to get back to normal after weeks of having to stay in his room. He is especially looking forward to the restart of the facility's music program.
"We had lots of activities," the 69 year old says. "This was an active place, always something to do... we were going to have a Christmas choir and I was so looking forward to that.
"I can't wait for things to be fully back to normal. It is the social interaction, people getting together, that I really missed."
Moon says he now feels like a survivor.
"I feel just terrible, really sad," he says. "I know, and this may sound strange, that in the days to come I will round a corner and I know that I will see one of their faces again. We are going to have a memorial service and I look forward to participating in that."
Betty Lake, 93, says she is looking forward to being able to socialize again, but she knows already there will be some missing faces.
"It is very sad, seeing all the vacant chairs where they used to sit," she says.
"(Before COVID) the day was filled with activities. We always were doing something."
Life will return to some semblance of normal.
"We will still go forward — their memories will be with us. I think we will gradually get into things again. We will go back to our dining room and we will see our other friends there," she says.
"Anything like this, you will live through it."
Kevin Rollason is one of the more versatile reporters at the Winnipeg Free Press. Whether it is covering city hall, the law courts, or general reporting, Rollason can be counted on to not only answer the 5 Ws — Who, What, When, Where and Why — but to do it in an interesting and accessible way for readers.