Bella Sera residents are still COVID-free

18 months into pandemic, RRH senior facilities are among 1 percent in California with no resident outbreaks

“I think it is important for people to know that we are the only facility in all of Kern County with 0 COVID-positive residents since Day One,” said Christian Salviejo, administrator of Bella Sera."

That did not happen on accident. “Our staff did the right things, and the result is that we have been able to protect our residents from COVID.”

Out of 1,224 skilled-nursing facilities in California, only 8 have avoided patient outbreaks. In Kern County, the only facilities that made the list are on the Ridgecrest Regional Hospital campus — Bella Sera and the Transitional Care and Rehabilitation Unit (TCRU).

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, health officials have warned that senior citizens are among the most vulnerable. Of the 643,858 COVID-related deaths reported in the United States, 502,863 (about 78 percent) were 65 years or older.

In California, 13,078 COVID-related deaths happened in nursing homes. While the positive cases of SNF residents make up only 4 percent of the cases in our state, they account for 20 percent of the death toll.

“Our elderly population are more susceptible to COVID not only because of the frailty that comes with weakened immune systems as we age, but there are often underlying conditions,” said Salviejo. These underlying conditions often make COVID more difficult to fight.

“So because of these factors, we have seen a disproportionate number of deaths among the elderly.”

Toward the beginning of the pandemic, nursing home outbreaks swept other parts of the county — at one point accounting for more than a third of the COVID-related death toll in all of Kern. While Kern County does not report the death toll for the Ridgecrest community, RRH has acknowledged that more nearly 2,000 cases have been reported locally.

Bella Sera and TCRU locked down the facility to visitors when the risk of outbreak became clear, and implemented what Salviejo calls “best infection-prevention practices” following the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), California Department of Public Health (CDPH) and KERN County Public Health guidelines.

Once patients are admitted into Bella Sera, the residents and staff are regularly tested for COVID and monitored around the clock for any COVID-like symptoms.

“It’s a lot of work, but we know how important it is to stay on top of things,” said Salviejo. In addition to protecting the residents at Bella Sera, the employees know they can scarcely afford to put themselves at risk, either. “Being short even one or two people because of illness has an impact on those who remain.”

There have been several positive tests at Bella Sera, but safety protocols and other precautions have kept those outbreaks from reaching residents.

Salviejo said that 98 percent of the residents at Bella Sera have agreed to the vaccine. More than 76 percent of staff have been vaccinated, “and that number is getting higher.” Unvaccinated staff are more vigorously tested and screened, “and we are still encouraging everyone who can to get the vaccine.”

Since the most severe period of surging has ended, Bella Sera is allowing visitors once more — although even those are to be scheduled and arranged in advance. “I hope people understand that we love to have family and friends visit our residents. But we do have to take precautions to keep them safe.”

A huge part of the success in doing so comes down to the dedication of staff, he added.

“Our staff works really hard. It’s not easy to work with a mask on all day, especially since there are physical components of the work. But I really appreciate the level of commitment our staff demonstrates at every level — from environmental services to dietary to laundry.

“And of course our front like workers are just amazing — from our nurses down to the CNAs. My mother is still working as a CNA, and I know how hard she works,” said Salviejo.

I know that people think the word ‘hero’ is being overused right now, but that’s exactly what they are. Our staff are heroes.

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What can you do to keep our most vulnerable residents safe?

“I know this has been going on a long time, but we can’t relax yet, said Salviejo. “Last year we had one of the lowest incidents of flu we have ever experienced it, and I think a big part of that was because so many people were distancing and wearing masks.

“Going into our next flu season, please get vaccinated and keep wearing your mask.” Today, when you walk into local stores you can see that many people no longer take those precautions. “But I recommend that you continue for the sake of your own protection as well as for the sake of others.”