Iowa City retirement homes hope to see a return to pre-pandemic normalcy with new variants

As the pandemic soon approaches its three-year anniversary of hitting the U.S., residents of local nursing homes still show concern for COVID-19 but are ready to continue living their lives.


Photo illustration by Avi Lapchick

Sofia Mamakos, News Reporter

Retirement homes nationally faced high rates of infection during the height of COVID-19. As new variants are introduced and pose risks to residents, Iowa City retirement homes are still taking precautions.

Kim Bergen-Jackson, an administrator for Oaknoll Retirement Residence in Iowa City, said residents and staff have become one small community during the pandemic.

“We joined together so that no one was really feeling like they were alone,” she said. “We were able to keep COVID-19 out of the health center until last year, which was a huge accomplishment as far as I was concerned.”

According to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 163,231 total nursing home resident COVID-19 deaths have been recorded in the U.S. since 2020.

Bergen-Jackson said Oaknoll is using all of the standard precautions for infection control. Though residents are taking precautions, the new variants cause some to worry about infections, she said.

In May 2021, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services required nursing homes to report vaccinations of residents and staff.

“People don’t want to be sick, and they don’t want to be in the hospital, and they certainly are tired of worrying about it,” Bergen-Jackson said. “I get questions every week about if there’s any new ideas coming out of public health and if there’s any new variants to be worried about.”

Bergen-Jackson added residents are specifically concerned about the new omicron variant XBB.1.5, which is highly contagious.

“They’re all worried about this latest variant because the news is putting out there that it’s like, five times more contagious than the last variant, and so that makes people really nervous,” she said.

RELATED: New COVID-19 variant increases the risk of infections in Johnson County

XBB.1.5 is the latest descendant of the omicron variant. This subvariant was reported in late 2022 and quickly rose to the top of all strains of the virus circulating in the U.S.

Residents at Oaknoll are ready to get back to normalcy, Bergen-Jackson said.

“We have to get back to living. At Oaknoll, that means great big parties and events and dining together,” she said. “So, we’re doing all of that, but we’re asking people if they’ve been exposed or don’t feel well to not participate.”

Meghan Adam, marketing manager at Melrose Meadows Retirement Community in Iowa City, said her facility follows the guidelines for vaccinations and hasn’t seen any recent spikes in COVID-19 infection.

“We haven’t had any outbreaks. We haven’t had any deaths. There have been a number of folks who have had COVID-19 at this point, and all of them have recovered,” she said. “We’re trying to move forward and be smart about things while still staying social and keeping our sanity.”

Adam said she believes the small case numbers are largely because of the nature of her specific assisted living community. She stressed the importance of understanding the difference between a nursing home and an assisted living facility, which can be commonly misconceived.

“Nursing homes have a population that is a lot more fragile and a lot more at risk, so it makes sense that they would need to have stricter guidelines,” Adam said. “Independent living and assisted living ­ – you know, our population – isn’t necessarily quite as fragile. We’re a little bit stronger and more capable of handling things as they come up.”

As new variants arise, the Melrose Meadows facility plans to continue to follow CDC precautions.

“We’ll deal with things as they come, but what we have been doing so far has really been working well for us,” she said. “If somebody does test positive, then we just ask them to isolate themselves in their apartment for whatever the current CDC guidelines are and then follow the current guidelines after that.”

Bergen-Jackson is taking COVID-19 seriously even though she thinks fewer people are falling ill than before.

“The numbers are still out there, but it’s less scary to me because of the vaccinations and the boosters,” she said. “I don’t think it’s ever gonna go away, but we’re figuring out how to live life again and compensate for that.”