When Vicki Henricks saw people on the news standing outside nursing home windows to talk to loved ones, she never thought she would do it.
Then, for Easter, Henricks dressed as the Easter Bunny and put a sign reading "Everybody Loves You" on the bird feeder outside her father's window at NHC Healthcare in Rossville, in Walker County, Georgia.
She spoke with her 90-year-old father through the window, but she did not like the separation. She did not like being unable to see her father up close. She did not like having a piece of glass and the delay of the phones between her and another of his seemingly endless jokes.
But Henricks understood the need for quarantine.
"I thought, well, he's not around anybody. He's not having visitors. He's not out shopping. I thought, well, he's pretty safe," Henricks said.
On Saturday morning, Henricks' father, Andrew Hallum, died from COVID-19. His death raised questions in the family about the safety measures at the Rossville nursing home that has now experienced six deaths.
The nursing home in Rossville reported its first death on June 8. Since then, five more people have died with coronavirus-related illnesses as the deadly virus continues to affect the most vulnerable population in Georgia.
Hallum is one of 1,139 people who have died in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities in Georgia in connection with the global pandemic. Deaths in these facilities make up more than 45% of all the COVID-19 deaths in Georgia as of Tuesday afternoon. The virus continues to hit these facilities even as testing has ramped up in recent weeks.
The state's health department announced Tuesday that 100% of nursing home residents in facilities with 25 or more beds have been tested for COVID-19. In all other long-term care facilities aside from nursing homes, 77% of residents and 57% of employees have been tested statewide.
Even as testing has increased, numbers have shown that it's difficult to contain the virus in facilities for both residents and staff. In Georgia, 5,455 health care workers have tested positive for the coronavirus. Over 2,800 of those were employees at long-term care facilities.
On April 8, Hallum left a message on his daughter's phone saying he was struggling to breathe, Henricks said. He was not tested for COVID-19 until June, and the results were negative. Days later, when Hallum was at CHI Memorial in Chattanooga on June 3, he tested positive for the virus, Henricks said.
Hallum's family did not learn that he had been taken to the hospital for nearly a week, Henricks said. By that point, her father was unable to speak with the drugs he was under and the machines keeping him alive.
On June 12, after nine days in the hospital, Hallum was moved back to NHC. Henricks drove to the Rossville nursing home to hopefully get a glimpse of her father on a stretcher being moved back inside. She sat in the parking lot waiting but when he father arrived, he was wheeled in through a separate entrance and she never saw him.
That day, a hospice nurse at the facility FaceTimed with Henricks and told her Hallum was "actively dying," Henricks said. He died the next morning, about 12 hours later.
Henricks does not know why the hospital or the nursing home would move someone so close to death. She lost her husband in 2005 to pancreatic cancer and said he was not allowed to move facilities because doctors worried it would be too hard for him.
Casey Reese, spokesperson with National HealthCare Corporation, said the nursing home followed company protocol and made contact with Hallum's primary contact on file. Reese wasn't able to identify that person due to federal privacy guidelines.
Hallum's sense of humor kept him alive for 90 years, Henricks said. He had diabetes and needed frequent shots. He was in a wheelchair. But he was always positive. The man never met a person he could not find a joke for or get along with, she said.
In the picture of Hallum featured on his obituary, and in other pictures shared online, the 90-year-old wears a silver cross necklace. His faith was important to him, Henricks said, and he often talked about heaven.
"He thought he was going to see everybody," she said. "He was going to see everybody again. And there were even days I was a little excited for him. I thought, gosh, he's going to be going to this place he tells me about all the time, how wonderful heaven's going to be, and he's just about there."
The grief of losing a loved one in the pandemic is especially lonely. Henricks feels it.
"It's awful being the family left behind, seeing this take place and knowing I was not with my dad when he died," she said.
The last time the family saw Hallum in person was March 11, for this 90th birthday. NHC locked down that month as the coronavirus spread throughout the region. To celebrate the birthday, one of Hallum's daughters made him a sweatshirt that read, "It took me 90 years to look this good."
Hallum's family never got to see him wear it.
On Tuesday afternoon, NHC Rossville reported a total of 72 confirmed coronavirus cases. Of the 48 residents who have tested positive, six have died, four are in the hospital and one has recovered. Twenty-four employees have tested positive, and 17 have recovered.
Across the county line, 36 residents at the PruittHealth nursing home in Fort Oglethorpe have tested positive and two have died, while 30 employees have tested positive.
Contact Wyatt Massey at email@example.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.
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