Almost a year and a half had passed since Geline Williams had seen her mother, former Richmond Mayor Geline Williams, anywhere but on a computer screen.
Williams, one of five siblings living in farflung places, traveled to Richmond from her home in Boston for a long Mother’s Day weekend visit with her mother, now 97, in her apartment at Secret Garden Villas, an assisted living community at Cedarfield retirement complex in western Henrico County.
“Truly tears of joy,” she said of her meeting with her mother on Thursday.
The reunion was enabled by a combination of vaccinations against COVID-19 and the relaxation of family visits to long-term care facilities, such as Cedarfield.
“I think we can all feel that things are starting to open up again,” Williams said.
However, recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic is coming at a different pace and in different ways at nursing homes and assisted living facilities that have borne the brunt of a disease that has killed more than 10,000 Virginians, more than 4,100 of them living in long-term care facilities.
Williams said she was able to meet with her mother — without a face mask — in her apartment at Cedarfield because they are both vaccinated against the virus. The daughter was required to wear a mask anywhere else in the building, but previously she said Cedarfield had allowed only brief visits outside by two of her sisters.
“That’s been a huge, huge change,” she said in an interview before returning to Boston on Saturday.
But at Lucy Corr Village in Chesterfield County, Mother’s Day tea will be served on Monday — a day later than normal and without families present because of continuing restrictions on public gatherings, especially where people have to remove their face masks to eat.
This year, the annual event marks the beginning of a National Nursing Home Week celebration that “takes on an absolutely different level of emotion” than in the past, said Keith Hare, president and CEO of the Virginia Health Care Association and Virginia Center for Assisted Living.
“Everything is far different than it was last year,” Hare said.
Family members have been meeting with the 160 nursing home residents at Lucy Corr over the weekend, scheduled in 60 half-hour visits each day in common areas of the facility.
“The last three weeks over here have been as normal as it has felt for a long, long time,” Lucy Corr CEO Derrick Kendall said on Friday, the beginning of the holiday weekend. “As normal as you can be in a pandemic.”
However, there was nothing normal about March at Lucy Corr, which experienced a COVID-19 outbreak after almost all of its residents and most of its employees had been vaccinated against the coronavirus disease.
The outbreak had begun with four employees who had not been vaccinated and showed no symptoms of the disease.
The facility’s twice-weekly testing identified them as positive for COVID-19 and then detected the disease in seven vaccinated residents who live on units where the employees had worked.
That meant two weeks of quarantine as Easter Sunday approached and the family visits were to resume under guidelines that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had released on March 10.
The outbreak was a humbling lesson for Lucy Corr, which had avoided any COVID-19 cases during the first nine months of the pandemic and has not lost a resident to the disease.
Its first three cases occurred in December, between the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays.
“We had to dial down on our expectations of how impervious [to the virus] we are,” Kendall said after the unexpected outbreak.
The Virginia Department of Health is tracking what it calls “vaccine breakthrough” cases, in which people who have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 test positive for the disease.
“There have been vaccine breakthrough cases identified in Virginia nursing homes,” said Sarah File Lineberger, manager of the department’s health care-associated infections program.
Lineberger said the department would undertake a routine outbreak investigation and prioritize additional testing “for any possible vaccine breakthrough cases.”
“There have been multiple recent outbreaks reported from long-term care facilities that likely started from unvaccinated staff,” she said, so the department “continues to emphasize the importance of staff vaccination in order to protect residents who are susceptible to COVID-19.”
Still, a year ago on Mother’s Day, children could see their mothers only on their computer screens, by Zoom technology that became a lifeline during the pandemic, or by standing outside the window.
“Last year, we were locked down,” Kendall said at Lucy Corr.
More than 32,000 long-term care residents and employees have tested positive for COVID-19 since Gov. Ralph Northam declared a public health emergency on March 12, 2020. Last week, Northam announced he may end state restrictions on public gatherings and requirements for social distancing, and will consider allowing the emergency to expire on June 30.
The difference is the vaccines developed and distributed with federal assistance, beginning with the residents of nursing homes and other assisted living facilities, as well as front-line health care workers.
“The cases have just bottomed out,” Hare said. “What we’re hearing over and over again is ‘the vaccines are working.’”
What hasn’t changed in nursing homes is the need for continued COVID-19 testing and precautions when family members visit with residents.
“They have to wear masks,” Kendall said at Lucy Corr, which supplies a new, unworn mask to every visitor.
“We’ll eventually get to the point where you won’t need appointments,” said Kendall, although he added that family still would have to call ahead to alert staff that they are coming.
For Geline Williams, the physical separation of her mother from her children has been “very challenging.”
She said, however, that the family has gained a deep appreciation of the people who work at Cedarfield and other long-term care communities.
Williams said that she and her family have been “just overawed by the kindness and the dedication of the people who look after residents at Cedarfield.”
Kendall cautioned that Lucy Corr and other nursing homes haven’t reached the end of the pandemic yet.
“It’s still going,” he said, “but it’s not as diabolical as it was.”