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Afraid Of Coronavirus Exposure, St. Louis Families Are Pulling Loved Ones Out Of Nursing Homes

Greg Shank, 20, Harry Shank, 94 and Gary Shank, 65, pose for a photo at their home in St. Louis County on May 22, 2020.
Greg Shank
Gary Shank moved his 94-year-old father, Harry Shank, out of Delmar Gardens of Chesterfield this month after hearing that a few residents at the nursing home tested positive for the coronavirus.

A few weeks ago, St. Louis County resident Gary Shank decided to move his 94-year-old father out of Delmar Gardens nursing home in Chesterfield. 

Delmar Gardens notified Shank, who lives near Chesterfield, that three residents there had tested positive. Shank didn’t want his father to become infected, so he brought him home on May 6.

More than a third of nursing homes and assisted-living facilities in the St. Louis County have reported to state health officials that multiple residents have tested positive for the coronavirus. Like others who have moved loved ones from nursing homes, Shank wanted to distance his father from the risk.

“He would’ve probably stayed there if it wasn’t for this corona, because he was getting good therapy there,” said Shank, 65. “But why take a chance when your odds are so bad statistically for people over a certain age?”

Families are concerned because some facilities in the St. Louis region have a high number of cases and deaths. Life Care Center of St. Louis has at least 43 infected residents and seven deaths, and Edwardsville Care Center in Illinois has had at least 54 infected residents and 12 deaths.

As hundreds of nursing homes across the country report residents testing positive for the coronavirus and some deaths, families have decided not to put their loved ones in a nursing home or residents have decided to leave. Many skilled nursing homes have seen up to a 6% decline in patient populations since the beginning of the year, according to estimates from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Delmar Gardens of Chesterfield's building on May 22, 2020.
Credit Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
More than a third of nursing homes in St. Louis County, including Delmar Gardens in Chesterfield, have residents who have tested positive for the coronavirus.

Heartland Hospice has also helped move some nursing home residents after their families grew concerned about the coronavirus. But the company does not recommend taking residents out of nursing homes, business development manager Nick Lundholm said.

“The facilities are doing the best they can, and we know of many facilities in our area that have not had any cases, so I think it’s a comfort level for each individual resident or family,” Lundholm said. 

VOYCE, a St. Louis group that advocates for long-term care residents, has received hundreds of calls from concerned family members during the pandemic. Some have asked whether they should take their relatives out of nursing homes, but the group advises against it. Caring for a frail person at home can be costly and burdensome, said Chien Hung, VOYCE’s program director. 

“If you move someone back home, then how are you going to provide all the care? That’s a lot of money,” Hung said. 

Family members who regularly leave and enter the house could also potentially expose their loved one to the virus, Hung said. 

Shank’s father had only been living at Delmar Gardens since March. The elder Shank fell when getting out of a car, breaking his femur, and doctors installed a titanium rod from his hip to his knee. He previously lived alone in his condo. 

To accommodate his father, Shank had converted the living room at his house into a bedroom and added a shower to the first-floor bathroom. Shank, his wife and their three children wore masks when Shank’s father arrived. His father also ate his meals separately until he received a negative coronavirus test result about a week ago. A Delmar Gardens physical therapist visits their home twice a week. 

“We’ve gone out a lot less,” Shank said. “I’m terrible with that. I get yelled at all the time.” 

Shank wanted his father to live with him eventually, but the pandemic prompted the move much sooner than he expected. 

“We knew there were going to be some challenges,” Shank said. “We have to get him up every morning, give him his meals. The fact that this virus is going on, it would’ve been stupid to not bring him home.” 

Follow Eli on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

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Eli is the science and environment reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.