By LORI HINNANT and JEAN-FRANÇOIS BADIAS Associated Press
AMMERSCHWIR, France (AP) — Some were born in this warren of small rooms in what used to be a hospital, dating to the 17th century. Many are likely to die here. And all are currently confined to their rooms, denied the simple comfort of human companionship.
The residents at the Weiss nursing home in eastern France want to chat face to face, to play board games, to share meals. And so each gave a vial of blood to be tested for the coronavirus, as did each staff member — about 580 tests in all. The goal: to identify who must be isolated and who will be allowed the freedom to leave their rooms.
"We spend all our days between those four walls — that's it, we are not allowed to go out. We don't even have the right to go out in the hallway," said Henry Bohn, a 69-year-old who suffered a stroke that has left him in a wheelchair. "They bring us breakfast, lunch and dinner here in the room. Luckily, we have the sun these days and it helps, but we do miss the essential things."
An Associated Press photographer spent two days chronicling the virus testing at three of the 10 nursing homes in France's Haut-Rhin region, where comprehensive testing was ordered by local authorities. The site in Ammerschwir poses particular problems with its small rooms and long corridors, and residents with often-severe cognitive difficulties.
"It is hard for them to remember the rules that we give them. When we put masks on them, they hardly keep them on, and they need to socialize and leave their rooms," said Sylvie Ghiringhelli, the head nurse.
Some patients wander out anyway, clustering in hallways or taking seats in the common room before they can be led gently back.
The elderly make up a disproportional share of coronavirus victims globally, and that is especially true in nursing homes, which have seen a horrific number of deaths around the world.
In France, nursing home deaths account for more than a third of the country's total 17,000 coronavirus victims — figures the government now documents meticulously after weeks of pressure. Infections have swept through the country's 7,000 residences for the elderly, with more than 15,000 confirmed cases among patients and 8,900 among staff between March 1 and April 14.
And nowhere has it been deadlier than in France's east, near the border with Germany, where the outbreak began at an evangelical gathering in the city of Mulhouse. Overall mortality in the Haut-Rhin was up 143% from March 1 to April 6, according to government figures.
Restricting residents to their rooms can take a different kind of toll.
"The confinement stopped all the communal meals in the dining room, stopped every form of social life," Ghiringhelli said. "There are no more activities, no more visits. Our residents bear the consequences."
Marie Louise Kopp's room is filled with souvenirs — photos, china cats, octagonal paintings — to help jog a 79-year-old memory that waxes and wanes.
"My son was coming to visit me and some family, but now nobody can," she said, an untouched newspaper on her lap. "Everyone stays at home with this crisis."
France's health minister, Olivier Véran, said family visits would again be permitted beginning Monday, at a resident's request and as long as the nursing home staff can organize a system of ensure protection against the virus.
"There will not be physical contact but there can be visual contact, and that can provide solace," Véran said Sunday.
It's not clear how quickly visitors will be allowed again in Ammerschwir, but the nursing home staff hope testing everybody will enable most residents to at least leave their rooms without fear of infection. Results are expected next week and the local administration and nursing home directors will then meet to discuss the next steps.
Elsewhere, France has locked down nursing homes after two positive tests and simply assumed that anyone with symptoms was infected.
"The testing will perhaps allow us to partially resume life, communal meals and activities in small groups," Ghiringhelli said. "And to mend the social ties."