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Staff at Grosvenor Court care home in Cliftonville speak about harrowing Covid losses


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It's April 2020 - just a month into the first, devastating Covid wave - and the virus has claimed the life of another resident at Grosvenor Court.

Such tragic events have become horrifyingly frequent at the Cliftonville care home, with as many as three people dying each day.

The loss of so many residents deeply affected staff at Grosvenor Court. Stock image
The loss of so many residents deeply affected staff at Grosvenor Court. Stock image

Staff, desperate to keep morale up but witnessing death on a daily basis, are inconsolable, saying: "We can't take it if anyone else dies."

This traumatic account from manager Clarissa Javes gives just a brief insight into the devastation experienced by workers at the home in First Avenue.

In total, during the first Covid wave, when testing wasn't yet available and panic-stricken employees could only do their best to try to protect and comfort residents, they lost 17 residents.

Staff would sit at their bedside to offer love and support as, with only end-of-life medication available, a tragic outcome was often inevitable.

At its worst, the home was losing three residents a day, and bosses admit some staff are still coming to terms with what happened.

"On the worst day, I had probably two or three staff in tears because another resident had passed away..."

"They were brilliant; it was so traumatic and they were dealing with so much but working flat out," says Ms Javes.

"They invested everything into looking after and comforting residents, even though they were scared themselves. No one knew anything at that point.

"It happened really fast at times - a resident would present symptoms and go downhill really quickly.

"There was one man who had been here for years and he started showing symptoms at 1am, and at about 2pm he was gone.

"On the worst day, I had probably two or three staff in tears because another resident had passed away.

"They were just inconsolable and looking to me for support, and you feel like you have to be the strong person and say everything is going to be OK, but when you're going through an outbreak in a home, you don't know that it will be.

Grosvenor Court care home - now renamed The Avenues Care Centre - in Cliftonville
Grosvenor Court care home - now renamed The Avenues Care Centre - in Cliftonville

"They were saying 'How are we going to go back out there? We can't take it if somebody else dies'.

"I know a lot of people think this is just a job but it's not; it's something that's in your heart, that you're passionate about, it's in your soul.

"Residents become your family; you love and respect them like they are yours. When something like that happens you have emotions as if they were your own (family) and people forget that.

"Caring isn't a job, it's a calling."

Ms Javes previously worked at the Willows Care Centre in Cliftonville, run by Premiere Care Ltd, which also operates what is now The Avenues Care Centre.

Last year, in the middle of the first wave, she came in as the new manager, leaving a Covid-free home for one with an outbreak.

"When I worked at the Willows site I remember looking out at all the residents thinking 'this thing that's coming is absolutely invisible'.

"I said to my manager 'We might lose half these people'. She said 'I know'.

"This was when it first started coming and there was no guidance, no one knew what to do.

"It was literally on the managers and provider to make the right choice, but they had little information to fight it."

Operations manager Michelle Jenkins, chief executive Shawn Cole, head of care Katie Prendergast and manager Clarissa Javes
Operations manager Michelle Jenkins, chief executive Shawn Cole, head of care Katie Prendergast and manager Clarissa Javes

During the outbreak at Grosvenor Court, which has been renamed The Avenues to give it a new lease of life, care home boss Shawn Cole gave staff a pay rise, provided food boxes and ordered in pizza to make sure they were eating.

He also put the facility into lockdown for eight weeks - a decision he admits was difficult - with residents kept in their rooms to protect them, and no one, except doctors and district nurses, allowed inside the home.

He recalls how heartbreaking it was at the worst point in April and May, with one daughter having to leave flowers on the doorstep for her late father, and the home unable to share relatives' grief.

"Once end-of-life guidance was issued by Public Health England we did allow families in," he said.

"But before that we had to lock the home down, and I was criticised for that, but the risk was too high to our residents.

"Once end-of-life guidance was issued by Public Health England we did allow families in..."

"We needed to keep Covid out, but sadly we didn't."

Since the pandemic struck, 1,414 people across Kent have died in care homes with Covid, with 142 of those deaths recorded in Thanet.

The government has admitted that its policy during the early stages of the pandemic to have patients moved from hospitals to care homes may have directly led to subsequent deaths.

A Public Health England report said outbreaks of the virus could potentially be linked to the policy, because patients were not always tested for Covid before being moved - a requirement that was introduced only in mid-April last year.

Mr Cole says hospitals discharging patients to care homes was frustrating due to the risks it posed, so they brought in stringent infection control measures, including the creation of a 'Covid floor'.

It consists of four rooms with en-suites, where new residents or those discharged from hospital stay for two weeks.

The corridor has wipe-down, hygienic cladding, high-grade ventilation and no carpets - something which has been introduced across the whole home.

A total of 17 residents died with Covid at Grosvenor Court. Stock image
A total of 17 residents died with Covid at Grosvenor Court. Stock image

Mr Cole says since taking the building on, almost £1 million has been invested in renovation work and bringing it up to a high standard.

He even built a pub inside for some of the residents, who tragically never made it through Covid to enjoy a pint.

But despite this investment and that of the staff, in December the Care Quality Commission inspected the home and ordered it to improve.

In a report published in February, they raised issues over safety and the lack of training of employees when it came to administering medicines.

Operations manager Michelle Jenkins says they accepted what the CQC said and put it right immediately, but that social media comments and stories about the report had an impact on staff.

"They say 'people just don't know what we've been through in there..."

"They get so despondent when they read negative things and then they get angry because they want to respond via social media, but we won't allow it," she said.

"They say 'people just don't know what we've been through in there'.

"Even though sadly we lost that many people, we are so proud of what we achieved through Covid. The staff worked so hard and were brilliant.

"But nobody knows that and it's frustrating. If you're an outsider you're going to look in and think 'oh they got that wrong', but we didn't get it wrong.

"Nobody knew what was happening at that time and no one is to blame."

Ms Jenkins says staff are thankfully now no longer scared for their lives or those of the residents.

They have undertaken training and Ms Javes says they have brought in improvements including enhanced audits so any issues or potential problems are immediately flagged up.

Vice chairman of KCC Cllr Lesley Game with owner Shawn Cole
Vice chairman of KCC Cllr Lesley Game with owner Shawn Cole

"It's looking at the bigger picture of the home and making sure we're going above and beyond," she added.

"We also put the residents at the centre, so empower them by getting them involved and seeing whether they like the care they are receiving.

"With Covid, our staff now - because they've worked with it - they've got so much experience. They are just so on the ball."

Mr Cole says The Avenues, which has space for 60 residents but currently cares for 44 - including the elderly, those with physical and mental ailments and dementia sufferers - can be a tough environment even without Covid.

"Your days here can be chilled as anything and then you come back in the afternoon and it's total chaos," he said.

"With Covid, our staff now - because they've worked with it - they've got so much experience. They are just so on the ball..."

"It's not just a caring job. Staff get spat at, they get food thrown at them, sworn at, attacked, and for what they do and what we get from central government to give to staff it's not enough.

"I've brought that up with Helen Whately (minister of state for social care) and with Kent county councillor Lesley Game, whose father used to reside here and who is really supportive.

"You've got a home in Bolton which is a really deprived area and they get £1,500 a week - we get £508 per week to provide care for one high-need resident."

Ms Javes says that £508 government funding reflects a person who needs two staff at all times, repositioning in bed every two hours, fully hoisting and assistance to feed.

Vice chairman of KCC Cllr Lesley Game recently visited Premiere Care Home premises, including The Avenues, to pay tribute to staff
Vice chairman of KCC Cllr Lesley Game recently visited Premiere Care Home premises, including The Avenues, to pay tribute to staff

"These are all people. They deserve the same amount of funding," she said.

"We give them the same level of care, but this should be reflected in the staff salaries, but when they're (central government) giving us so little to provide care, it's not."

Despite an extremely hard year, Mr Cole describes the atmosphere in the home as incredible and since last year's outbreak they have had no cases of Covid among residents.

He paid tribute to everyone, including the carers, heads of care, domestics, kitchen staff, maintenance, management, head of kitchen and domestic, administration and activities co-ordinators.

"Even when things were really bad and we were locked down, the staff did karaoke around all the rooms to keep spirits up," he added.

"We really want them to know how much we value them after what they went through and everything they do."

Vice chairman of Kent County Council Cllr Lesley Game recently visited the three Premiere Care Homes residences, including The Avenues, to pay tribute to staff.

She said: "The last 16 months have been particularly trying and I would like to take this opportunity to thank all frontline workers, including those in social care and the NHS, for everything they have done in fighting this virus and in helping those who have contracted it."

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