LITTLE ROCK, Ark — Coronavirus is taking a staggering toll on Arkansas nursing homes.
Thirty-five percent of reported deaths from COVID-19 complications are nursing home residents. And they are our most frail, vulnerable, and beloved group of people.
THV11 got an in-depth, exclusive look at Briarwood -- the first facility under attack -- which is now free of COVID-19.
Evelyn Rand, 99, lives at Briarwood Nursing and Rehab. Her family visited as often as they could, but on March 12, the home went on lockdown, as fears of COVID-19 ramped up.
In an exclusive telephone interview with top administrator Joan Robbins, we learn that even though the facility had been preparing for weeks, the virus' arrival was like nothing they've seen.
"We were expecting it, we just didn't expect it at Briarwood," Robbins said. "When you're the first one, when you're the guinea pig, everyone just has to figure it out together."
It began mid-march.
A male resident had been taken to the hospital a few days earlier for something unrelated to COVID and was released back home to Briarwood on the 17th.
The next morning, the hospital called Briarwood to inform them the resident had tested positive for COVID-19.
"Once we were made aware, everything was a different ball game," said Facility Medical Director Dr. Bushra Shah. "It was like personal, we've been attacked by corona, this was a war that we're gonna win -- whatever it took."
The staff worked tirelessly to comfort their residents.
"Whether we had to hand feed them, whether we had to massage them, some of them were anxious and just wanted company," Dr. Bushra Shah explained.
All the while, the home, which had been stocking up on PPE, lacked tests for all of its 98 residents. The health department secured 13 tests, initially.
"And we chose the 13 most frail residents that we had in the building," Robbins explained.
It took nearly a week to secure enough for all residents and staff -- the owner driving out of state to buy tests.
And then residents began to die.
The first was 83-year-old Alice Jett. She died March 30. Her family said she spent her life as a 911 supervisor for the city of Little Rock and was adored by her colleagues.
Frances Jansen died April 1 -- a beloved mother and grandmother, who was once a big band singer.
And then Evelyn Rand tested positive; her family unable to be by her side.
"For two months, not to see their loved ones? Every night I would cry that no one else would die," Robbins said.
"Joan said, 'I'd rather die than lose any of my residents,'" said Dr. Shah.
All told, five residents died.
"There are people saying, 'Oh, it's no big deal, it's like the flu.' Well it's worse than I've seen anyone die from the flu," Robbins said.
Turns out, Rand was one of 42 total positive COVID-19 patients of the 98 residents.
Outside the home, the community came calling -- people making signs, singing to the residents, drawing for them. Robbins attributes that to community support and her staff.
"These girls were willing to work any amount of shifts we wanted," Robbins said. "They didn't know about getting any kind of bonuses from the government. They didn't ask for anything extra, they didn't want anything extra. They were just happy to have food for them when we could sit down and eat."
Fast forward to today -- to good news.
"We are COVID-free as a facility," said Dr. Shah.
Evelyn Rand fought off the virus, testing negative just a week ago. Her family is preparing to celebrate her 100th birthday this July.
Seventeen health care workers tested positive, many asymptomatic.
When that call came March 18th that the male patient tested positive, no one knew what to do. He was ultimately hospitalized for a few days, but since he was asymptomatic, went back home to briarwood.
All of it underscores the fact that no matter how much they tried to prepare, nothing could stand in the way of COVID-19's devastation.