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Bethel Lutheran Nursing and Rehabilitation Center is among long-term care facilities that have moved into phase one of North Dakota’s Vulnerable Population Protection Program or VP3.

“We’re saying a lot of prayers as we go along here,” the center’s director Tammra Peterson said, acknowledging the difficulties that could lie ahead in reopening these facilities which house the populations most vulnerable to COVID-19.

Coronavirus death rates for those who are age 70 and older with underlying conditions have been in the range of 14 percent in North Dakota, and they are 23 percent for those age 80 and older, or nearly 1 in 4, according to figures from Gov. Doug Burgum.

At least 67 of the state’s 77 deaths have been individuals in nursing homes.

“We feel, and I think long-term care facilities across the state, see the residents need for that socialization,” Peterson said. “As we go on without that socialization and personally seeing their families and the touching and the hugging from their families, we agree that has been an impact for the residents. They need that socialization.”

FaceTime and window visits can only do so much, Peterson said.

“So we are supporting this along with being very conscientious to prevent a resurgence of COVID-19,” she said. “It is a balancing act and we are just making sure we do that really good screening, the temperatures checks, and anyone who is sick, whether it is residents, staff or family, we just don’t have that contact then.”

To get to Phase 1 of the state’s reopening for long-term care, facilities must comply with two rounds of testing of at least 90 percent of both residents and staff and show no new cases of coronavirus among residents.

Other gating criteria for this phase included active cases in the county where the facility is located, adequate staffing and access to adequate testing and persona; protective equipment, adequate hospital space.

In phase 1, visitation inside Bethel facilities is still prohibited except for end-of-life compassionate care. Outside visits are available right now, however. And those are available during the summer regardless of where a facility lies on the state’s reopening path.

Hours for outdoor visitors at Bethel are 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. An appointment is required so that social distancing requirements can be met.

“That has been going very well,” Peterson said. “We have a partition up that is pleixglass, close to the resident’s family at one side of the table to maintain that social distancing. They are wearing a face mask, and if the resident can tolerate it, they wear one, too.”

In phase 1, the facility is allowed to have communal dining and group activities, but in small groups that maintain social distance.

Residents are screened two times a day for symptoms, which includes temperature checks.

Bethel will have its next round of coronavirus testing on June 26, and expects to have those results in the following Monday. If there are no new cases among residents, the facility could then move into phase 2, and might begin receiving its first indoor visitors by June 29.

“We’ll call VP3 and talk to them again at that point,” Peterson said.

In phase 2, facilities may allow limited indoor visitation, one visitor per resident at a time, other than end-of-life compassionate care situations. Non-medical trips may also occur outside the building. Social distancing and other measures to prevent coronavirus must be taken for both. Group activities are limited to no more than 10 people per group.

Phase 3 will take another two weeks to get to, and that is the phase where facilities are allowed to fully open visitation. Communal activities will also no longer be limited to groups of 10.

If all goes well, Bethel will have its Phase 3 testing the week of July 9, and it could potentially move into phase three by the week of July 13.

“Social distancing will be vitally important as we move forward,” Peterson said. “It would be nice if we could open up a bit quicker, but I’d rather move slow and be safe than end up with a resurgence. So even as much as we want to get the families and residents reunited, we want to be safe.”

Peterson added that the state has been an enormous help throughout the pandemic.

“One thing about this I cannot say enough is that the state has been very supportive,” she said. “We have people we are connected with that we can call any time we have a question or concern.”

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