'I knew in my heart it was our parting': How death stalks the most vulnerable

Elderly at great risk and virus can spread like fire in care homes

11 July 2021 - 00:00
By graeme hosken AND Graeme Hosken
Nina Drigianakis and her mother, Loula Paxinos, who died of Covid-19 last year.
Image: Supplied Nina Drigianakis and her mother, Loula Paxinos, who died of Covid-19 last year.

Nina Drigianakis had a feeling she was seeing her 96-year-old mother for the last time when she visited her at a Johannesburg old age home during the first Covid-19 wave last year.

“I knew in my heart it was our parting. People don’t understand, but when Covid gets into an old age facility, it’s like putting a match to tinder. Once it’s in, it spreads like wildfire.”

Three weeks after her June 2020 visit to the Greek Lady Benevolent old age home, Drigianakis’s mother, Loula Paxinos, died of Covid-19 in Linksfield Hospital in Johannesburg.Eight other residents died from the virus within six weeks of an outbreak at the care facility.

Covid-19 outbreaks at frail care, old age and retirement homes have claimed hundreds and exposed how vulnerable the elderly are to the disease.

Among such cases are the deaths of:

  • 14 residents over three weeks between May and June at Bloemfontein’s Striata Retirement Village. A nursing sister is facing a disciplinary hearing, which could lead to criminal charges, for failing to follow safety protocols at the facility, possibly contributing to the outbreak;
  • 16 residents at the Boksburg Society for the Aged since April 2020. A maintenance manager who refused to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) was fired in June;
  • 12 residents from the Eersterust Welfare Organisation for the Aged (Ewofa) in Pretoria, who died over three weeks after staff allowed an annual Christmas party with their relatives to take place. All three of the homes have brought in new measures to try to prevent a repeat during the third wave.

Striata Retirement Village trustee Veronica van Niekerk said the nursing sister was charged with failing to follow safety protocols. Her disciplinary hearing began on Thursday.

“She knew the protocols and why they were in place but did not adhere to them.” Van Niekerk said the outbreak started in the frail care section, from four other staff members who were asymptomatic. “Because they were unaware they were sick they were not charged,” he said.

But it is believed the nursing sister helped spread the virus by failing to follow protocols. The nursing sister has since left the facility.

Boksburg Society for the Aged chair Hennie Els said the maintenance manager had repeatedly failed to wear protective equipment while entering Covid-19 isolation wards.

“He flouted health regulations. He would go into isolation wards not wearing any PPE. Because of the residents’ vulnerabilities, staff are required to wear a mask, full visor and PPE suit.”

Els said the Boksburg Society for the Aged did not lose any residents during the second wave but the third wave had claimed three lives. “While government has given us good assistance, we are worried about the third wave and have increased protocols beyond government’s requirements,” he said.

“We have to be strict. The risk of mass outbreaks is real. If we don’t, the deaths will be worse.”

The Rev Patricia Ohlson, Ewofa’s centre manager, said: “In the weeks between December and January, we lost 12 residents to Covid-19. Fortunately we contained the spread, but it was difficult. We now have very strict protocols in place.”

Daniela Chrysostomou, chair of the Greek Lady Benevolent Society old age home, said they learnt hard lessons after the first wave. “We lost nine residents in six weeks. Three deaths were within three hours.”

She said their stringent protocols meant they had no deaths in the second wave.

“With the third wave we took no chances. In June we went into a hard lockdown. So far there have been no deaths.”

Lawyer James Grant said criminal charges could be laid in cases where staff had been found to be responsible for spreading the virus.

He said that with regard to the Striata Retirement Village case, the charge that probably could be laid would be culpable homicide, “because of the negligent exposure of the virus to others”.

“It will be an extremely difficult case to prove. One would have to be able to link the death of the residents to the nurse and her conduct and then be able to show that she knowingly behaved recklessly and carried on with her behaviour regardless.”

According to information gathered from provincial social development departments, 250 residents in Gauteng government-funded care facilities have died from Covid-19 since April 2020. In the Western Cape, 661 residents living in government-funded and private care facilities died from Covid-19, and 40 people living in government-funded and private care facilities died in Limpopo.

Prevashni Naidu, a spokesperson for the KwaZulu-Natal-based The Association for the Aged (Tafta), accused the department of social development of leaving many organisations on their own to find solutions and funding for sanitisers and PPE.

Between June 2020 and July 7 2021, 24 Tafta residents died from Covid-19, with 143 infected. Tafta has 1,500 residents living in its 13 homes in eThekwini. The department failed to respond to requests for comment.