ROCKFORD — Nursing homes are adapting to a new normal, prohibiting visitors and taking steps to protect and screen staff members in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.


A long-term care facility that provides assisted living and memory care to patients with dementia has been particularly hard hit by COVID-19, the potentially fatal respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus.


Two residents of Anam Care, 8104 Sayer Road, died from respiratory issues related to COVID-19, said Bernice Marinelli, the facility’s chief executive. Three Anam Care residents are hospitalized with respiratory problems, although only one has tested positive for COVID-19. Test results on three other Anam Care residents came back negative.


"They were doing good and then they weren’t," Marinelli said of the residents who died. "That’s what we saw in other residents of the house that didn’t feel well. They were great and then they weren’t and it was like stabbing you in the heart."


Anam Care can house up to 46 residents and has a staff of 53.


The facility has barred visitors since the beginning of March, when COVID-19 cases began to spike statewide and around the country.


"Our staff had masks and garbage bags on because we didn’t have adequate PPE, so we made our own PPE," Marinelli said, referring to personal protective equipment. "We made plastic shields out of headbands. We designed an immediate PPE gown out of plastic bags. It was the most frightening thing I think I’ve ever imagined."


Providing personal care has been particularly difficult given the level of care Anam Care residents are accustomed to.


"We’re a high touch, total involvement group," Marinelli said. "Now they’ve had to put on these masks and gowns and gloves and shields. It’s scary for somebody who doesn’t recognize who they are on a day-to-day basis, let alone try to see somebody who looked familiar to them who was giving loving care and is now dressed up like a soldier."


Staff members at Anam Care have their temperatures taken before, after and occasionally during their shifts, Marinelli said. Residents at the facility are monitored several times each day for symptoms of COVID-19.


No Anam Care staff members have tested positive for the coronavirus, Marinelli said.


"We’re reporting residents with any new symptoms to the Winnebago County Health Department almost on a day-to-day basis," she said. "We’re trying to do the best we can to deliver the personal touch to our people in spite of the fact they are quarantined in their rooms."


Alden Alma Nelson Manor, 5505 S. Mulford Road, also elected to make public a positive case of COVID-19 on April 7.


A call to Alden Alma Nelson Manor was not immediately returned.


"While we expect to have cases in congregate settings during this pandemic, it is concerning to know that those in our community who are most vulnerable and at highest risk for poor outcomes have been exposed," the Winnebago County Health Department said in a news release.


As of Thursday afternoon, the Winnebago County Health Department reported 144 confirmed COVID-19 cases, including eight deaths in the county.


Fewer than 1% of county residents have been tested for COVID-19 to date, meaning there’s a gap in understanding of how the disease progresses, Winnebago County Health Department Administrator Sandra Martell said.


"Part of it has been access related to testing kits. We’re struggling through that right now," Martell said. "On top of that we now have a variety of testing methodologies. We have rapid tests, we have some antibody testing coming on, we have nasopharyngeal, we have the swabs. So part of it is expanding the capacity within the state."


A pair of faith-based sister organizations, Wesley Willows and Peterson Meadows, have restricted resident activities and increased monitoring of staff members to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.


Wesley Willows, 4141 N. Rockton Ave., is a senior continuing care retirement community with 725 residents and 325 employees.


Peterson Meadows, 6401 Newburg Road, is an independent senior living community with 160 residents and a staff of 35.


"If we have someone who, as a protective measure, goes to the hospital or has a doctor’s appointment, when they come back to campus, we require a 14-day quarantine in their living accommodations," said Debra Adkins, chief operating officer of the two facilities. "We started several weeks ago having all of our staff at both locations getting their temperatures taken each day when they come to work. We have a mask-on policy right now for all of our staff and we have no group activities. We have just really limited any kind of contact."


While no visitors are allowed at either location, family members and friends of residents are permitted to visit them through home or apartment windows.


"That’s one of the most difficult things," Adkins said. "How do we support life that is outside of this virus and continue to offer help that has meaning and value for residents?"


No residents or staff members at Wesley Willows have tested positive for COVID-19, Adkins said.


It’s unclear whether any residents of Peterson Meadows, an independent senior living community with no in-house health care services, have tested positive.


"We would only know if they disclosed it to us," Adkins said. "Those would be things they would expect us to keep private. But, in our health care areas, I can tell you we have had no positive tests."


The dedication displayed by employees at both Wesley Willows and Peterson Meadows during the pandemic has been inspiring, said Bill Pratt, CEO of the two facilities.


"Between the two campuses, we have over 350 people who come to work each day, marching right into it because they care about our residents and they know it’s their job," Pratt said. "They’re deep into this up to their elbows day in and day out."


Health department officials encourage residents to stay home as much as possible, wear face masks in public, wash their hands frequently and practice social distancing by staying at least 6 feet from people other than immediate family members.


"I pray that when this is over, hopefully soon, that somehow or another collectively as a community, we will be able to thank the men and women who pulled us through this," Marinelli said. "I’m so proud of the staff and our nurses and our physicians. I’m on my knees in prayer and gratitude."


Ken DeCoster: kdecoster@rrstar.com; @DeCosterKen