There’s no Zoom replacement for holding someone you love close. Now, as San Francisco continues to shed COVID-19 restrictions, friends and loved ones are making up for lost hugs, especially in hospitals and nursing homes.
“When COVID hit, we couldn’t see her at all,” Evangeline Lopez said during a recent visit to see her sister, Isabel Partida, who lives in the skilled nursing facility at Laguna Honda Hospital. “We’re so happy that we can be in physical contact and see her in person.”
While bars, restaurants and other venues for socialization have been welcoming back people for months now, visiting hours at skilled nursing facilities like the one at Laguna Honda Hospital have only recently resumed their pre-pandemic hours and guest privileges. It’s a major milestone for patients and those who long to see them.
“When I came back, she started singing the old Spanish gospel songs that we used to sing in church,” said Lopez about her sister. “That’s how she reacts with joy. So she’s been very joyful ever since they’ve allowed us to come back.”
San Francisco took an extremely cautious approach with the pandemic and in particular for the most vulnerable populations, such as seniors and people hospitalized with chronic illness. While successful in preventing COVID cases, the strategy virtually closed off many hospital residents from visits that keep spirits high and, studies have shown, can prolong life and reduce delirium.
In early March 2020, the San Francisco Department of Public Health limited visitors to only those deemed essential, such as in end-of-life situations, at hospitals and skilled nursing facilities to prevent infection among staff and residents.
For many months that year, in-person visits were completely cut off for most residents at Laguna Honda.
“That was very depressing to be honest; I wasn’t happy,” said Bernadette Yee, 66, who also lives at Laguna Honda. “During the pandemic, the gift shop and wellness center was closed. All the classes were canceled.”
Meanwhile, as state and county health orders around visitations shifted, so too did opportunities to see loved ones. In the fall of 2020, visits were allowed to resume in a limited fashion and only outdoors.
In March 2021, indoor visits began slowly resuming at Laguna Honda, first within large airy spaces such as the hospital’s chapel. The delta and omicron surges, however, threw another curveball, causing visiting hours to contract again last winter in response to staff shortages and general risks of catching the highly transmissible omicron variant.
As of March 7, Laguna Honda opened up visiting hours to 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. with no limit on the number of indoor visitors. Masks are required and guests must show proof of vaccination or produce a negative COVID test at the facility’s testing center. Staff and residents are tested on at least a once-weekly basis.
Residents have also been able to leave the hospital to go out with friends or family — although it’s now a more formal process that requires getting approval. Before the pandemic, Yee said, it was a simpler process to exit and reenter.
Despite the additional clearances, getting to go out again has been a game changer for people like Yee, who have felt isolated in the hospital since the pandemic began two years ago.
“Going out to see the world is a different story than being cooped in the four walls in the hospital,” said Yee, who has been at Laguna Honda since 2016, the same year she had a stroke. “When you go out and see the world, sun shining, people shopping, it’s much more fun that way.”
Now, with coronavirus variants such as BA.2 and deltacron on the horizon, those tasked with updating systems and safety protocols for visiting hours say the only way to be prepared is to be ready to change at any moment.
“I truthfully live day to day, personally and at the hospital. Things have changed on a dime, from delta to omicon,” said Chauncey Jackson, director of environmental services at Laguna Honda, who has overseen efforts to continue visitations as much as possible during the pandemic.
“Everything may be going great today,” he said. “And then two months from now we might have to pivot based on whatever the health order is — not only staff, but also families and residents as well.”
Prior to the pandemic, Partida, 88, would see her sister every week. The two would eat lunch together, read from the Bible, play music, laugh and just be together. But that all came to a screeching halt in 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic caused hospitals and senior living facilities to put visits on pause.
Partida could still hear from her loved ones on a phone call, but the regular in-person meetings with her family were hard to replace.
“We would call often. We talked on the phone all the time,” Partida’s sister said. “But it was very hard not to be able to see her and touch her and just be with her.”
When the pandemic caused San Franciscans to keep social interactions to a minimum, there were no pods to hunker down with among a select group of friends or parents for those living in hospitals and nursing facilities.
“We as staff, we get to go home. We have eight or 10 hours and go home. In settings like this, they don’t go home, this is their home,” said Jackson. “How would we feel if we were told in our home that nobody could come over? We can take the risks we want to, good or bad. But our residents don’t have that choice. We make it for them.”
More than 90% of residents at Laguna Honda are vaccinated and 85% are boosted. Since vaccines rolled out, there have been zero COVID-19 deaths across Laguna Honda Hospital and Rehabilitation Center.
Now, as San Francisco as a whole celebrates an 83% vaccination rate and plummeting cases, families who had to separate to stay safe are embracing again. They’re making up for the birthdays, holidays and gatherings that were lost over the past two years.
“Now, we always celebrate. We bring cupcakes and ice cream and a burrito or two,” Lopez said. “I’m just so happy that they were as strict as they were because it helped her be safe.”