Defending Vermont's Elders: Erin Schifilliti | Off Message

Defending Vermont's Elders: Erin Schifilliti


Erin Schifilliti - OLIVER PARINI
  • Oliver Parini
  • Erin Schifilliti

Editor's note: Seven Days is profiling some of the people defending Vermonters from COVID-19.

Life is normally a communal affair for those living in the Ethan Allen Residence, a 40-bed licensed eldercare facility in Burlington’s New North End. Unless residents are ill and bedridden, they eat their meals family style with staff in a common dining room.

Throughout the day, the seniors are encouraged to turn off their TVs, get out of their college-dorm-size bedrooms — many of which two residents share — and participate in daily activities, such as art classes, live musical performances and visits from schoolchildren. The more able-bodied ones help those with dementia, which, one administrator explained, gives the former a greater sense of purpose.

However, these aren’t normal times for the residents, or for Erin Schifilliti, director of nursing at the Ethan Allen Residence. Last Friday, Gov. Phil Scott issued an executive order that restricts access to eldercare facilities.

These days, Schifilliti’s challenge is to maintain a sense of normalcy for her charges while also protecting the two populations at greatest risk of infection from the coronavirus — health care workers and the elderly.

Make no mistake, though: Schifilliti isn’t stressing out about this new disease. After all, minimizing the spread of germs is always a priority for a facility like hers. Still, the new virus has required that Schifilliti and her team become even more vigilant about preventing infections from spreading from one resident to another.

“It’s tiring,” admitted the Colchester resident, who’s been a registered nurse for 20 years and has worked the last five in eldercare. “I mean, a common cold or [gastrointestinal] illness could be the end of the road for some of these people who are frail.”

Indeed, at least 25 people associated with the Life Care Center of Kirkland, a Seattle-area nursing home, have died after contracting COVID-19, and others were hospitalized. At one point, nearly half the facility’s 180 employees had fallen ill.

But concerns about contagious diseases are a perennial matter. At the start of flu season last October, Ethan Allen Residence sent out its annual notice to family members, reminding them to wash their hands before visiting loved ones, to use the hand sanitizer stations throughout the facility and to forgo their visits if they had a fever or symptoms of respiratory illness.

Even before Scott’s executive order, Ethan Allen was already limiting entry to essential visitors only, with all routine programming, including outside entertainers and artists, canceled. Nonessential medical appointments were being postponed or conducted by phone. (Seven Days agreed to do its interview by phone rather than in person.)

Before anyone is allowed into the building, they are questioned about their health, recent travels and potential exposure to others with coronavirus, Schifilliti added. Everyone, including Ethan Allen staff, has their temperatures checked prior to entry, and the security doors’ keypads have all been disabled to ensure that everyone is screened.

Residents’ family members and friends now must stay away except in the most dire circumstances. Schifilliti said that families seem appreciative of the measures, and they’ve received “no pushback” from anyone.

The facility is now conducting “virtual visits” with families via Skype and FaceTime, according to Mary Mougey, Ethan Allen’s administrator. Similarly, in-person entertainment is being replaced with online programming, such as virtual yoga and live-streamed concerts.

As for the residents, those who show signs or symptoms of respiratory illness are being kept out of the dining room and other common areas until their symptoms subside.

Schifilliti and her staff face yet another unique challenge: caring for people who cannot always express themselves verbally or comprehend why they’re being sequestered in their rooms away from their friends. As of press time, no residents or staff had tested positive for COVID-19.

“I have great pride in my staff when we do have these challenges of more acute illnesses and seasonal stuff in our building … knowing that, some of them will get it, which then takes them out of commission,” she said. “These residents … need us now more than ever.”