A manager who has fought to protect her care home from the grip of Covid has spoken of her heartbreak at losing 14 residents to the deadly virus in just three weeks.
Melanie Harris, who runs the Cwm Cartref Care Home in Pontardawe, near Swansea, said the home had remained Covid-free throughout the pandemic – closing its doors two weeks earlier in March than the rest of Wales to prevent transmission and abiding by intensive infection control measures.
But the 54-year-old grandmother-of-two said her world came tumbling down on November 9 when 33 of her 43 residents tested positive for the disease, heralding the start of a harrowing three weeks which resulted in 14 deaths.
On top of the devastating loss of residents, Melanie, who lives in Resolven, near Pontardawe, saw 54 of her employees – out of a full team of 68 – test positive, forcing her to run on a minimal staffing level.
Melanie, who left her family and moved into the home for two weeks to manage the crisis, said: “My life fell apart. I think I was in shock because I hadn’t had any residents who were poorly or showing symptoms.
“You don’t get over something like this – I will never get over it. I’m 54 and I’ve nursed all my life. We’ve all heard stories about Covid being on the wards and nurses having to undergo counselling because of what they have experienced, I am dreading that for our staff. They have been brave and focused until now.
“We have lost 14 of our family in three weeks. All of these were classed as Covid deaths. When you have people as frail as this, they haven’t got a chance.
“Anyone who believes this virus is not real should come and stand in my position and watch how fast this virus can spread through a home or community. It’s so aggressive, it doesn’t spare anyone.
“Until you have witnessed death after death and having to deal with bereaved families and explain their loved ones are poorly, and then within hours that their respiratory rate is falling, then you will understand.”
The home battled to prevent Covid infection, closing its doors two weeks early, ahead of the national lockdown in March to avoid exposure.
They screened all staff coming into work with temperature checks, introducing supervised handwashing, strict PPE measures and outdoor breaks for staff. Additional domestic staff were employed to ensure all contact points in the home including bannisters and door handles were repeatedly cleaned. This continued with vigour throughout the summer months.
The home’s approach has been praised by Care Forum Wales, which represents nearly 500 independent social care providers.
CFW chair Mario Kreft said: “Covid is a cruel and indiscriminate disease and it is absolutely heart-breaking to hear of the scale and severity of Cwm Cartref’s loss.
“The fact that the home kept the virus out for so long is testament to the dedication and tenacity of staff who spared no effort in fighting this disease and continue to do everything possible to protect everyone in their care.
“Sadly, the tragedy at Cwm Cartref is something we as an organisation have seen many times over at other care homes where the diligence and hard work of staff has been in vain.
“This is why we stand together with our social care providers and continue to fight for the necessary support, resources and adequate testing procedures to shield the vulnerable and save lives throughout the winter and do our best to stop other homes sharing in this fate.”
It was during routine weekly Covid testing on November 6 the home received confirmation a care worker had tested positive for the disease.
Melanie oversaw blanket testing for all residents in response and was devastated when three days later, on November 9, it was confirmed 33 residents had tested positive. By the following weekend the disease had already claimed two lives.
“The home is based over two floors but I had positive residents right through the home. How do you cope with that? Three-quarters of my staff also tested positive on top of 33 residents,” said Melanie, who has three grown-up children, two sons aged 34 and 24 and a daughter aged 20.
“Our regional manager, Debbie South virtually moved in to assist us and in the process contracted the virus. Our director Jyoti Joshi worked tirelessly to cover staff shortages and manage the logistics. I was just running on adrenalin.
“I slept here and was doing 18-hour shifts. I left my family and moved in. There was no way I could manage the situation being at home.
“We made a decision to move the positive residents to the downstairs floor and so the whole of the downstairs was positive. The very few who were negative were kept upstairs as we didn’t have the capacity to move them. I think this decision has saved lives.”
One of the initial losses was 92-year-old war veteran Stanley Crawley, originally from Resolven, who suffered from Parkinson’s Disease. Weeks earlier, Stanley had been touchingly reunited with his daughter, Susan Clement, in the home’s novel outdoor meeting area for relatives complete with gazebo, microphones and headphones.
Prior to this, contact could only be fleeting through the window of the home based in Commercial Road.
“I promised his family I would be there and I never left his side. It has left a deep hole in my heart,” said Melanie.
“We were honoured to be invited to Stanley’s funeral where the family gave us an angel to overlook us and remind us that his family would always be with us.
“They are not residents to me they are family. It’s absolutely horrific. What got us all through this were the bouquets, flowers, cards and messages we’ve had from family members.
“I’m a wife, a mum and a gran. Being the manager of a care home is not a job, you have to be 150% dedicated. I gave my life up, it was my choice. This home is me and has been for the past five years.
“My mother in law who also resides at Cwm Cartref tested positive a fortnight ago and we thought we were going to lose her. We all prepared for the worst but by God somehow she came through.
“My own mother has Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and I’ve not stepped foot inside my mum’s home since June because of the worry.”
Sanjiv Joshi, managing director of the Caron Group which manages 14 care homes across South and Mid-Wales, said: “It has been a devastating time for our residents, their families and the home.
“Our staff have been traumatised by the sudden turn of events. The commitment shown by staff was amazing.
“We also had help from our sister homes and volunteers from the council. They all showed strength and many made huge personal sacrifices. They are the unsung heroes in the war against the virus.
“This is a home which has managed to keep Covid out for so long until November. It has been very difficult. We are fortunate for the support we’ve had from our local authority, health board, Public Health Wales and the Environmental Health agency in managing the crisis.
“This disease is so indiscriminate and we feel for other homes which have been or are going through this. It is very, very tough.”
The home has had no new positive cases but remains within the 28-day red alert period and is unable to accept visitors or admissions.
All staff have now returned to work and life is gradually returning to some level of normality, although Melanie said the enormity of their loss will be felt for many years to come.
“There is light at the end of the tunnel. We have 28 residents and we have Christmas to think about,” said Melanie.
“This home at Christmas time is an array of fun and laughter. I have lights up outside and it’s lit up like it has never been before – you can see us coming down the road! We’ve put lights anywhere we can put them.
“They will have Christmas – I can tell you that now!”