Donna Sullivan displays a heart she brings to show her partner, Walter Zbikowski, when she visits him through a window at Parkway Pavilion Health and Rehabilitation Center in Enfield, where Zbikowski is recovering from COVID-19 and other health issues. Cloe Poisson / CTMirror.org

When Walter Zbikowski, a nursing home resident in Enfield, was diagnosed with COVID-19 a month ago, his longtime partner Donna Sullivan feared he wouldn’t make it.

“He has a lot of underlying conditions,” Sullivan said. “I had a lot of sleepless nights. I was always worried.”

The couple met later in life. Sullivan ran a home daycare and one day a child plugged the toilet with a toy. She needed a plumber, and a friend gave her Zbikowski’s name. He fixed the toilet that day, and soon he was a fixture in her life. That was 14 years ago.

Sullivan has been at his side as Zbikowski, 75, faced several health crises in recent years. He was left paralyzed from the waist down after back surgery and has diabetes and kidney failure. She pledged to never leave him alone.

But COVID-19 forced her to break that promise.

In early March, with the pandemic gathering momentum in Connecticut, the state banned most nursing homes visits. Sullivan, an East Springfield, Mass. resident, could no longer stop by the Parkway Pavilion Health & Rehabilitation Center, where Zbikowski lives.

I thought it would last maybe a couple of weeks. I never imagined it would be this long.” — Donna Sullivan

“It was definitely a shock,” Sullivan said. “I thought it would last maybe a couple of weeks. I never imagined it would be this long.”

For so many families of nursing home residents, the fear that their loved one might die from COVID-19 – and that they will die alone – has become a new reality.

Ellen McGill called the Cherry Brook Health Care Center in Canton, where her sister has contracted COVID-19, to see if she could arrange a visit should her sibling become terminal. They told her she can.

Still, not being able to visit her 90-year-old sister is heartbreaking.

McGill, 77, was only six years old when her older sister, Anita Weston, left home to be married. Although they didn’t grow up together, the sisters bonded later in life when their adventurous spirits landed them both in Guatemala – Weston doing missionary work and McGill teaching English – and they have remained close.

McGill said she’s been phoning the nursing home to get reports. The news has been good so far, but she fears Weston, who has Alzheimer’s, will take a sudden turn for the worse.

“It’s kind of a grief, really, because I can’t be with her,” McGill said. “I can’t do anything except talk to people. I just hope they are doing a really good job, even under the circumstances.”

Donna Sullivan visits with her long-time partner, Walter Zbikowski, separated by a window at Parkway Pavilion Health and Rehabilitation Center in Enfield on a recent Sunday, where Zbikowski is recovering from COVID-19 and other health issues. Zbikowski has been a resident at Parkway Pavilion for six years and Sullivan visited often until March 6, when nursing homes across the state were put on lock down. Now Sullivan can only visit through the window and talk to Zbikowski on her cell phone a couple of times a week. Cloe Poisson / CTMirror.org

The pandemic has been especially difficult for Alzheimer’s patients and their relatives, said Dr. Wayne Paulekas, medical director for two nursing homes in the Hartford area.

“There is no socialization going on right now. Everyone is locked in their room. It’s hard on everybody, but especially Alzheimer’s patients,” he said. “They do the same thing at the same time every day and that’s what keeps them oriented in the world. Now they are no longer doing that.”

The pandemic has also brought about a change in staff behavior. Workers are less likely to sit on the edge of someone’s bed and chat as they would before.

“It’s the human part of the nursing homes,” Paulekas said. “This disease just will not let you do that now. It’s dangerous to sit on the edge of a bed of a COVID-19 patient and talk for an hour.”

The lack of interaction troubles Hashia Vazquez-Gautier, whose 90-year-old aunt, Sonia Gautier, is a resident of Arden House in Hamden.

There is no socialization going on right now. Everyone is locked in their room. It’s hard on everybody, but especially Alzheimer’s patients.” — Dr. Wayne Paulekas

Vazquez-Gautier said her aunt, who is blind and has Alzheimer’s, never had children of her own and developed close bonds with her nieces and nephews. She taught them their multiplication tables by setting them to song, and took Vazquez-Gautier on a trip to Europe for her 16th birthday.

Before the pandemic, Vazquez-Gautier visited her aunt every day at the nursing home, combing her hair and putting lotion on her arms and legs. Now she does FaceTime calls.

They sing songs together – Spanish songs and tunes from the 1940s and 50s – and blow kisses. “I tell her how much I love her,” Vazquez-Gautier said.

In a sense, the “Alzheimer’s protects her,” she added, because her aunt doesn’t understand the situation or remember when she last had a real visit. But Vazquez-Gautier fears that if her aunt gets COVID-19,  she will not be able to say goodbye.

“We all know we are going to die,” said Vazquez-Gautier.”That’s a part of life. But you want to be with that person until the last moment. That part is being taken away from all of us right now.”

We all know we are going to die. That’s a part of life. But you want to be with that person until the last moment. That part is being taken away from all of us right now.” — Hashia Vazquez-Gautier

With close quarters and vulnerable residents, the state’s nursing homes have become a flash point for COVID-19, with deaths in those facilities accounting for more than half of all coronavirus-related fatalities in Connecticut.

The number of deaths in nursing homes reached 1,249 on Wednesday, state data show, representing 58% of all fatalities here.

At Parkway Pavilion, Zbikowski’s nursing home, 93 residents had tested positive for COVID-19 as of Wednesday.

Barbara Stuart, the director of nursing services at Parkway, said she believes the high number of cases is related to a decision to test every resident, symptomatic or not.

“It was the best way to know truly what we were dealing with,” Stuart said, “ so we could make the best plan going forward.”

In Sullivan’s eyes, the prevalence of coronavirus at Parkway shows the virulence of the bug.

“I was thinking it’s only a matter of time before everyone gets it,” she said.

Workers struggle, too

While the coronavirus pandemic has caused heartbreak for many families with loved ones in nursing homes, the crisis has also sowed fear and frustration among employees in those facilities.

A lack of protective gear, long hours and limited staffing have created a volatile environment for workers, many of whom are women and people of color.

A union representing 6,000 nursing home employees in Connecticut has charged that the state’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak in long-term care centers is riddled with racial and economic inequities. Managers hoarding protective equipment to save money, inadequate inspections by the state, and an unwillingness to direct more funds to nursing homes are among the grievances shared by workers and labor leaders.

At least three staff members, the husband of a worker and the mother of an employee have died from the infection. Workers worry they’ll pass the disease onto their children, spouses or parents.

Keisha McDonald, a certified nursing assistant at Kimberly Hall North in Windsor, which is tied with another facility for the most deaths of any nursing home statewide, became sick after she was exposed to a resident with coronavirus. The part-time worker has been home – and without a paycheck – since early April.

And while the recommended quarantine timeframe has passed, McDonald, who tested positive for COVID-19, said she hasn’t returned to work because she’s still coughing and running a fever.

McDonald tries to limit her exposure to her children – a 14-year-old daughter, 13-year-old son and 8-year-old daughter – in their Hartford apartment, a tricky ordeal for single mother whose kids are home from school.

“I have young kids, and I could pass this onto them,” she said.

The stress used to be day by day or even shift by shift. Now it’s pretty much hour by hour.” — Paul Liistro, nursing home owner

Another certified nursing assistant from Kimberly Hall North, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because she was not permitted to talk to the media, said she contracted COVID-19 while at work. She’s been home sick since late March.

The worker said managers didn’t provide staff members with adequate protective gear until after the first case of the disease was confirmed in the nursing home, but by then it was too late. While at work, the employee noticed she developed shortness of breath and was easily winded. Weeks later, some of her symptoms have persisted.

“I’m slowly trying to get back to myself. I have fatigue, weakness. My body aches,” she said. “It’s been pretty rough. I was supposed to be feeling better in 14 days, but that hasn’t happened for me.”

Administrators at Kimberly Hall North said that two days after the first positive test came back at the facility, they required all employees to wear face masks and eye protection. Any staff member who contracts the disease at the nursing home is entitled to worker’s compensation, they said.

Paul Liistro, Managing Partner of Manchester Manor and Vernon Manor Health Care Centers and Arbors of Hop Brook, a retirement community, stands near the entrance to Manchester Manor. Residents at his health care centers who contract COVID-19 are moved to the hospital for care. Six residents at Manchester Manor have died of the virus. Cloe Poisson / CTMirror.org

Nursing home operators have also described the challenges they face in running their facilities amid the outbreak.

From securing and distributing protective gear to managing staff and separating healthy residents from sick ones, the daily routine has shifted dramatically.

Paul Liistro, CEO of Manchester Manor and Vernon Manor, spends his days shuttling between his facilities, dropping off equipment and checking in with staff. He runs boxes of gowns, masks, and gloves to his nursing homes and others. On a recent day, he dropped off some gear at the nearby Touchpoints of Manchester facility because it had more COVID-19 cases than any of Liistro’s buildings.

The cost of supplies has ballooned.

“We’d pay six cents for a surgical mask, and 60 cents for a gown – that was the most expensive price we would pay for gear,” he said. “Now, we’re paying dollars.”

Staffing has also been an issue. When the spread of the virus intensified, six workers quit at one of his homes. Others have been out sick.

Nursing home supervisors have had to figure out how to isolate sick patients and transfer others to the hospital.

As the days turn into weeks, Liistro has grown accustomed to his tumultuous new schedule. “The stress used to be day by day or even shift by shift,” he said. “Now it’s pretty much hour by hour.”

‘It’s heartbreaking’

During the early weeks of the nursing home lock down, Sullivan stayed in touch with Zbikowski through FaceTime calls.

In early April, the home began allowing families to make appointments to see their loved ones through a window. Sullivan was excited for her visit.

But before that could happen, she got a call from the facility: Zbikowski was running a fever. He was taken to the hospital and diagnosed with COVID-19.

When it became unbearable to sit at home, Sullivan went to the hospital parking lot, taking along a paper heart on which she wrote, “Donna Sullivan loves Walter Zbikowski, always.”

I would hold the heart up to the hospital and I would talk to him. I would say, ‘Honey, this is for you. I hope you can read my message.’” — Donna Sullivan

“I would hold the heart up to the hospital and I would talk to him,” Sullivan said. “I would say, ‘Honey, this is for you. I hope you can read my message.’”

Though Sullivan was fearful about Zbikowski’s health, he has recovered and is now back at Parkway Pavilion. Zbikowski credits Sullivan’s love for keeping him alive, but it’s hard not being able to see her.

He’s confined to his room and misses roaming the nursing home in his wheelchair with Sullivan, or going outside.

“When something’s taken away, that’s when you realize how bad you need or want it,” Zbikowski said.

Sullivan continues to visit Zbikowski, standing outside his window while talking to him on the phone or mouthing the words, “I love you.”

The visits help, but it’s not the same.

“It’s like holding a hot fudge sundae in front of somebody,” Zbikwoski said, “and saying you can’t eat it.”

Sullivan said she’s not as anxious about Zbikwoski’s wellbeing as she once was, but she feels for the families of fellow Parkway residents who passed away from the virus.

“It’s heartbreaking, really heartbreaking,” she said.

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Kathleen Megan wrote for more than three decades for the Hartford Courant, covering education in recent years and winning many regional and national awards. She is now covering education and child welfare issues for the Mirror.

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Jenna is CT Mirror’s Health Reporter, focusing on health access, affordability, quality, equity and disparities, social determinants of health, health system planning, infrastructure, processes, information systems, and other health policy. Before joining CT Mirror Jenna was a reporter at The Hartford Courant for 10 years, where she consistently won statewide and regional awards. Jenna has a Master of Science degree in Interactive Media from Quinnipiac University and a Bachelor or Arts degree in Journalism from Grand Valley State University.

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