CARE home managers say the roll-out of rapid coronavirus tests would have huge benefits for residents and relatives who have been kept apart for months.
A trial is taking place in a small number of care homes in England of a testing process which can give an accurate result in minutes, rather than hours or days.
Managers at care homes in Neath Port Talbot and Carmarthenshire are hoping the lateral flow trial is successful and can be implemented in Wales.
It could in theory mean relatives being tested when they came for a visit and then allowed to hold hands with or hug their loved one, provided the test result was negative.
The Local Democracy Reporter Service caught up with Baglan Lodge care home, Baglan, Glasfryn care home, Llanelli, and Hillside care home, Swansea, after speaking to managers there in April during the first wave of the virus.
Michelle Wright, the manager of Baglan Lodge, said of the rapid tests being trialled: “That would be absolutely amazing.
“Some residents are towards the end of their life, and some have passed away without seeing their relations. It is absolutely heart-breaking.”
Ms Wright said these residents did not have Covid-19 when they died, and that the home had not had any outbreaks.
“We have been extremely lucky,” she said. “It’s a miracle to be honest.”
Ms Wright said she badly wanted to create an outdoor shelter to facilitate visiting for relatives of the home’s 22 residents.
She said video calls and phone calls had their limitations.
“For people with dementia, or sight or hearing impediments, they need that (physical) contact with their families,” she said.
Ms Wright said the care home was well supplied with personal protective equipment (PPE) from Neath Port Talbot Council, and that staff had weekly Covid tests.
But the recent rise in the prevalence of the disease has been a worry, and Ms Wright said the testing system was struggling to keep pace.
She said: “If you’d asked me about four weeks ago, I would have said, ‘Everything’s lovely’. But there is a high rate of care homes with Covid in our area.
“We are all on edge. The staff here are working really hard – it’s draining for them.”
The vast majority of them, she said, would be willing to have a vaccine whenever it became available.
Like all care home managers, Ms Wright has to keep abreast of the latest public health guidance.
The manager of Glasfryn care home in Llanelli said she checked the regulations every day.
Things generally felt more organised than in April, she said, and managers were able to voice any concerns to public health officials.
The manager, who preferred not to be named, said rapid tests would make a huge difference in terms of visiting.
In the meantime, a sealed see-through pod has been constructed in the conservatory at the rear of the Felinfoel Road home, which currently has 24 residents.
“It was done in desperation to get the families back to visit,” said the manager.
One relative at a time enters the pod, with the resident sitting down the other side of the see-through screen.
After a 30-minute visit, the door of the pod is opened, allowing fresh air in. And 30 minutes later it is thoroughly cleaned, prior to the next visit.
The manager said the relative and the resident were able to hear one another through the pod, but that phones could be provided.
She said the home received weekly supplies of PPE and followed strict hygiene precautions – and that the coronavirus had been kept at bay.
“We have been really lucky,” she said.
The manager added that a multi-disciplinary Covid-19 team ran the rule on new admissions to the home, whether from hospital or the community.
New or returning residents have to stay in their rooms for two weeks, she said, even though they’ve produced a negative test before arriving.
The manager said staff paid particular attention to these isolating residents, keeping them company when needed and ensuring they had regular phone and Skype contact with their families.
New staff have been taken on since April.
Meanwhile, the home’s library has been updated with new books and regular activities take place.
“We had a Halloween party, and now we’re getting ready for Christmas,” said the manager. “We try to keep our spirits up.”
She added: “We have been very loyal to our staff – they have been excellent. They come in very cheerful and bright.”
At Hillside care home in Ffynone, Swansea, carers have been managing well, said a spokeswoman.
She said two colleagues and two residents had tested positive for Covid since March but that all of them had recovered well.
She said the home’s manager had bought a large stock of PPE, including oxygen, at the start of the pandemic and generally things felt less pressured now.
“We have got everything in place now,” she said.
The home has just under 60 residents and extra staff were recruited early on.
The Welsh Government has updated guidance to enable care home visiting to take place, based on the situation in each local authority area.
Care home providers have also been asked to make decisions about how they can support visits safely in their homes.
A Welsh Government spokeswoman said: “Routine testing of all care home staff is continuing and we are working with partners across the UK on the development of new testing technologies, including rapid testing lateral flow devices.”