FAIRMONT — On Wednesday afternoon, Linda Chefren was able to visit her elderly mother and talk to her just as she normally would throughout most of last year.
Despite Chefren being sealed in a clear plastic bubble, her mother didn’t seem to mind, and they were able to talk as if the situation was normal.
“I really wasn’t sure if she would really understand this from the window visits,” Chefren said. “My mother really doesn’t respond a lot. The backdoor blessing is that she doesn’t understand the concept of time lapse and what’s going on.”
Chefren’s mother is a resident of Fairmont Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center, and has been since last February. Because of the risk COVID-19 and the coronavirus pandemic poses towards elderly individuals, the center had to be locked down for several months to ensure the safety of its staff, clients and residents.
When visitation was allowed to continue during Gov. Jim Justice’s reopening plan, center administrators had to find a way to still keep everyone safe while entering the facility. That’s when center Administrator Jennifer Pagliaro said her “soccer mom” mindset kicked and the Chatterbox was born.
“One of our concerns was ‘How do you manage the amount of visitors we have and keep our residents safe?’” Pagliaro said. “I’m from a family that has been to a lot of sporting events and I said ‘What about those zip up pop tents.’”
Through donations from two Fairmont businesses, the center acquired two clear pop up tents where visitors could sit when visiting family members. The staff has them set up in a closed off area of the center, and visitors still have to go through a health screening process before even entering the room holding the Chatterboxes.
“We have two separate locations set up so we can be properly distanced,” said Jenn Frame, admissions and marketing director at Fairmont Healthcare and Rehabilitation. “The resident waits outside, we put the family member in, we zip them up in there, and they are contained. Once we get them in, then we can bring the resident in.”
This bubble system began about a week ago, and so far, it has been a hit with visitors, who Frame said find the concept novel. Pagliaro also said the tents allow for some contact as well, because the plastic is sealed and safe.
“They can sit super close to it, because it’s completely enclosed,” Pagliaro said. “If they both touch the plastic, they can actually feel each other’s warmth in their hands. Some of our residents are blind, but they can hear them and feel the warmth, so it has been really good.”
Chefren was the first visitor to break in a Chatterbox, and although she was nervous about the process, she was happy it was available so she could check on her mom closer than she’s been able to do in three months.
“I was really anxious because it had been such a long time since I had seen her,” Chefren said. “I was anxious the first time I came, and then I became very, very aware that I needed to be much more careful because my coming in and out of here to see her could infect everyone in here.”
According to Pagliaro, the Center quickly tested its staff and residents for COVID-19, so administrators could be on top of any potential risks to those inside. Pagliaro said this form of visitation is to ensure that no one gets infected, which is why the appointment and entry process for the Chatterboxes are so instrumental.
“When the governor announced that everyone had to be tested in the nursing homes, we had all of our residents and all of our employees tested,” Pagliaro said. “We had it all completely done within 24 hours, and we had zero cases. Zero cases since this all started in employees or residents, which I think is really something to be proud about.”
This is assuring to Chefren, who said she believes her mother is safe in the facility. Especially after seeing her, Chefren has the confidence her mother is doing well through the pandemic.
“This set up as a first step, I think works well,” Chefren said. “For me, it allows me to see her, and that’s the best I can hope for right now.”
Seeing the effect the Chatterboxes have had on guests and residents, Pagliaro said she wishes she had had a zip up tent sooner.
“I wish I had one of these when I was a soccer mom,” Pagliaro said.