Julie Roche awoke abruptly at 3am on Tuesday. The weekly Covid-19 test results for staff at her Buckinghamshire care home often arrive in the small hours. After Westbury Grange lost 13 residents in a torrid few weeks in March and April, the resurgence of the virus “terrifies” her and her subconscious prods her awake to check.
Her phone brought bad news: nine of her staff had tested positive, along with one resident. Roche’s care home was back in outbreak. “You can’t print what I said,” she says. “I am devastated.”
Roche scrambled into her car and got to the home at 4.30am. Two of the staff who had tested positive were on shift and she had to get them out. Now with one resident isolated and showing minor symptoms, she is waiting for test results on all the residents. More bad news is the last thing Roche needs.
She last spoke to the Guardian in April and told the heartbreaking story of a window visit in which a dying man’s wife, denied the solace of touch, brought her perfume for Roche to hold beneath his chin. Covid-19 took a quarter of her residents.
“We are on automatic,” she said at the time. “We haven’t had time to grieve. Once we get through this we will sit and reflect and deal with it.”
That has not yet happened. “We’ve parked it,” she admits nine months later. And now the virus is back.
“We just have to keep positive,” she says. “It’s terrible out there and people need to be mindful when they walk out the door, what they are doing and who they are mixing with.”
The sound of Led Zeppelin throbbing from a bedroom is proof that even after a terrible year, life goes on. Roche recalls looking in on a new resident recently and seeing a headbanging session in full swing: a lady in her mid-60s living with dementia, and her carer, rocking out to Jimmy Page’s guitar.
“Vera Lynn and all that has gone – it’s heavy metal now,” says Roche. “She was loving it. Her face was beaming.”
There have not been enough smiles in Britain’s care homes this last year. In the first wave, Covid-19 tore through largely unprotected facilities across the UK, killing 19,394 people – close to 30% of all care home deaths.
“It’s far from over,” says Roche. “We have had a few staff test positive through no fault of their own and it just scares me. That is how it’s going to be. Our anxiety levels are quite high at the minute.”
In objective, clinical terms, things are better in care homes than in the spring – for now. Testing is running smoothly, cases of Covid-19 at Westbury tend to be asymptomatic, and lockdowns nationally mean care home deaths are far lower than in April and make up a smaller proportion of the overall death toll. But stresses remain.
‘Anxiety levels are high’: care home staff brace for Covid’s return The British Journal Editors and Wire Services/ The Guardian.