VIRGINIA - On a sunny August evening, Kathy Merkel and her puppy sat outside her mother's window at Waterview Pines health care facility in Virginia. "My brother and Mom are visiting inside, and she’s comfy with her red and white fluffy blanket," she wrote in an email to the Mesabi Tribune. She then recalled Gov. Tim Walz's words from the previous month, that "families have made great sacrifices to control the spread of COVID-19 in our longer term facilities... but with guidance, families will be able to reunite with their loved ones while continuing to protect the health and safety of our elderly Minnesota residents."

It was four months since Kathy Merkel had visited her mother, June Begich Merkel, in person.

It was on March 17 that the state closed health care facilities to the public in light of the spread of COVID-19. Kathy Merkel and Greg Merkel would no longer be able to visit in person with their beloved mother, June Begich Merkel, a resident since 2010 at Waterview Pines, formerly St. Michael's Health and Rehab of Virginia.

Then on July 24 state restrictions began to ease. Kathy Merkel was allowed a 30-minute family visit. "I saw her sitting in the hallway with a food tray in front of her,” she wrote. “'Hi Mama,' I said. She looked up from her cranberry juice, and said, 'Hi Dolly.'"

Kathy Merkel remembers when she learned from the administrator and director of nursing of the restrictions. "I was devastated, and hid in Mom’s restroom for one hour crying by myself. When I came out, I still had tears in my eyes, and Mom started to cry. Then we both looked into each other’s eyes and we laughed. I called my brother, Greg at work, to share the heartbreaking news. Little did we know that we would not meet again in person inside until July 24, 2020, four months later (it felt like forever)!"

Maisie Blaine, a regional representative of the Office of Ombudsman for Long Term Care and a friend of the Merkel family, helped to write the July 10 Minnesota Health Department long-term care facility guidance, "even suggesting, with Mom in mind, that the facilities include more than one essential caregiver, in the resident's visits," Kathy Merkel wrote. "She has been an angel, and was part of a priceless gift to the open doors to visit our Mom in person again!"

Kathy Merkel said she cried when she learned of the in-person visits. "On July 23 Juliana Lundberg, the Waterview Pines (Monarch, Healthcare Management) Administrator, did approve Greg and me as our Mom’s essential caregivers." Lundberg had outlined the requirements -- wearing masks and goggles, having temperatures taken, using hand sanitizer, filling out health questionnaires.

"We were given the gift of 3-hour visitations a day, all at one time, or breaking up in different increments. Only one of us visiting at a time. We could go directly to Mom’s room, although I was given permission to say hello to residents and staff, in the hallway," she said.

Being outside in 40-degree or 85-degree humid weather was a challenge. "Mom got sundowners (restless, agitation, irritability or confusion that begins or worsens as daylight begins to fade) in the late afternoon, and cry out, 'Come in…you can come in (side the room.)'" Kathy Merkel wrote. "We’d attempt to explain that we can visit outside but can’t come in because of the coronavirus. It was hurtful not to see our Mom in person, and she didn’t understand why." Waterview Pines, operated by Monarch, the Minnesota Department of Health and the Center for Disease Control had imposed rules on how families could interact and communicate with residents in light of the spread of the coronavirus.

Kathy Merkel said her mother “suffered unintended consequences during isolation.”

"Isolation and loneliness caused our Mom to call at 2:30 and 6 a.m,” she wrote. “ She’d say, 'Come and get me. I want to go home.'"

In August, the Waterview Pines Family Council, a group of family and friends of nursing home residents of which Kathy Merkel is facilitator, promoted a “Smiles Enclosed” program in the newsletter, inviting volunteers to send cheery note cards to the nursing home residents. June Begich Merkel received a card from the daughter of June's longtime friend Kathy Mros. "What a treat!" Kathy Merkel wrote in her email. "Mom and Kathy were one-of-a-kind pals who would talk on the phone every night sharing stories, talking about their Holy Spirit Catholic church guilds, or just catching up from the day. Many times Mom said that Kathy Mros would fall asleep on the phone while on the marathon phone conversations."

Another day when Kathy Merkel arrived for a visit she saw a Waterview Pines resident clutching an envelope. "I smiled, greeted her and said, 'Oh you got my card.'" The resident said,"You sent it. Oh, you monkey. It’s so special…I’ll open it tomorrow."

In a recent interview, Kathy Merkel thanked the Office of Ombudsman, the Minnesota Health Department, Monarch Healthcare Management, Waterview Pines and God "for welcoming us back safely into our Mom’s home."

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