The lobby at Cripple Creek Care Center is filled with reminders that the COVID-19 pandemic is still ongoing. Paper signs taped to the wall read ‘please sanitize your hands’ and ‘masks required beyond this point’. Everyone who enters is required to have their temperature checked.
But it’s quiet, a scene of what’s to come.
After 47 years of operation, the Cripple Creek Care Center is closing its doors in June. It is one of nearly 400 nursing homes in the United States that could close this year, a direct result of a staff shortage.
Lawrence Cowan is administrator of the care center, located in rural Teller County. He also worked the night shift as a nurse to compensate for the low numbers.
“In 35 years, I’ve never experienced this and I never want to do this again,” he said.
Overtime isn’t the hardest part, though. For Cowan, letting go of his dedicated staff and saying goodbye to the residents has been heartbreaking.
“They are our family,” he said. “And that’s going to have an impact on them because the statistics show that in a year maybe half of our people won’t even be living because of the transference trauma that happens when moving from one place to another. .”
Before the center closed, it was Stéphanie Henrich’s job to find new accommodation for the people who lived there. She is the Director of Social Services at Cripple Creek Care Center (CCCC).
Henrich said it’s a difficult task because there is only one other skilled nursing facility in the entire county. Finding nursing homes that accept Medicaid or VA benefits is also difficult, Henrich said.
“Some of these residents have been here for 25 years or more. That’s all they know and now they have to go somewhere else and start all over again with people they don’t know. So we send them letters telling them what ‘they like, their dislikes, so maybe the facility they go to can handle them better and they can acclimate faster,’ she said.
Henrich drives nearly four hours each week to work from San Luis.
“I come here and I stay for the week, I help them and I can’t give up on them now,” she said. “I’ve been with them for six years. I can’t leave, so I have to go all the way.”
“[There’s been] many tears shed by family and residents,” she said. “Some residents feel like we’re evicting them. We feel like we’re being kicked out too. It’s hard for everyone.”
Over the past two years, nearly 40% of Cripple Creek Care Center employees have left, according to Cowan. He said the rural location coupled with the lure of higher-paying travel nursing jobs has made it difficult to fill vacancies. The facility has stepped up its recruitment efforts and worked with the local high school to get children into nursing training, but, he said, that was not enough.
“There really isn’t a staff member at the care center who hasn’t worked two or three times,” he said, looking back over the past two years. “For example, my business office staff is also made up of certified practical nurses. They work one to two shifts a week to care for the residents upstairs.”
Nobody, according to Cowan, left to work elsewhere.
“The nurses we have had in recent years have not left and have gone to another establishment. They left for health reasons. out of state,” he said.
The number of staff really started to drop about six months into the pandemic, said Kellye Nelson, assistant director of nursing at CCCC.
“…and then of course the warrant information came down to the vaccines. And then that had another impact and, you know, we just didn’t have the candidates to replace that,” said she declared.
Nelson largely attributes the shortage to federal government COVID-19 vaccine mandates. The care center offered religious and medical waivers, but she said some staff still left.
State figures show that just over 3% of skilled nursing facility workers in Colorado have quit their jobs due to the vaccine mandate.
In addition to the staffing shortages, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, or CMS, is proposing a $320 million reduction in home health insurance funding. Nelson said it would be a big hit for providers whose bottom lines are already stretched, and especially challenging for rural health facilities.
According to state data, the center has seen three outbreaks starting last May. The outbreaks are considered resolved, but one resident has died.
Still, Nelson said she thinks the warrants are a big part of the problem.
“COVID has not shut down this facility,” Nelson said.
“I feel like the government created this situation, not necessarily the virus,” Nelson said. “Not that it’s not really a problem, because it absolutely is, but for it to have gone as far as possible, I personally think I would prefer to be done with nursing.”
And she is not alone. Research from the Kaiser Family Foundation shows that the number of workers employed in nursing and aged care facilities has continued to decline nationwide since the start of 2020, while other jobs in the sector of health have almost recovered.
Cripple Creek Care Center consistently earns high marks from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid services or CMS. It has also been listed in the top 10 healthcare facilities in the United States for the past five years, as reported by US News and World Report.
“I think that’s one of the things we’re very proud of is that we may not be new. We may not be fancy…but we’re small and we care about people “, Cowan said.
That includes Marjorie Schmidt, 86. She has lived at Cripple Creek Care Center for three years, spending the day playing cards and bingo.
“I just want to pass the time,” she said.
His closest family is in Denver, a few hours away. Henrich found her a place in a nursing home in Cañon City, about an hour south of where she is now.
Cowan and other staff have worked to lessen the impact of the move for residents like Schmidt, touring the new facilities with them, introducing them to staff and even helping them choose furniture.
Another woman from CCCC goes to the same place as Schmidt, something she looks forward to.
When asked if the shutdown was the right move, Cowan heartily replied “yes.”
“I will never jeopardize the care we provide to our residents,” he said. “With the squad having dwindled to the level they have, it was absolutely a possibility had that decision not been made.”
Neither Cowan, Henrich nor Nelson said they had made any plans for what they would do next. For now, the focus is on finding comfortable housing for residents.