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How a Baltimore Pastor Protected Nursing Home Residents From COVID-19

Derrick DeWitt's early action kept virus out of inner-city facility

the reverend derrick dewitt talking with his aunt gerri alston

Scott Suchman

The Rev. Dr. Derrick DeWitt Sr. photographed on the porch of Maryland Baptist Aged Home with his aunt Gerri Alston

En español | Our nursing facility was founded 100 years ago. We've got 29 residents — and we have had no COVID-19 cases. People ask how we kept the virus out of our nursing home when so many have been hit so hard. For us it's the three E's: being early, excessive and endlessly careful. Don't ignore; don't let up; never let your guard down.

I became an avid watcher of the world news. In February I knew China was ahead of us in relation to infections. So were South Korea and Germany. I began to listen to them right away. On February 28 we locked down the facility. Nobody in, nobody out, except the 40 staff members who have direct contact with our residents. We ordered gowns, masks and gloves before there was a shortage. We started temperature checks three times a day and taking patients’ oxygen levels. We're strict and intrusive in monitoring our staff. I haven't been inside the facility myself since March 1. It's too risky. People say, “Aren't you a man of faith? Why are you doing all this? God will protect you.” I respond, “Oh, I have faith in God. But I also wear my seat belt when I get in my car."

Stand up for loved ones in long-term care

Get on the horn: Zoom is challenging for people with vision or hearing loss. Phone calls often work best.

Organize: Start a council with other families to advocate about any concerns. One voice can get lost.

Find an ally: Nurturing a good relationship with a staff member builds trust. Identify someone reliable you can call. 

I have been pastoring in the inner city long enough to know that the people who need help the most are the ones who get it the least. The nursing home and my church are located near the part of Baltimore city where Freddie Gray passed away. In the 74 square blocks of the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood, we have no grocery store and 109 liquor stores. Our residents are an inspiration to me and this community. They're survivors and thrivers. My favorite aunt, Gerri, is a resident and like a second mom to me. She battled cancer, and she understands why she needs to wear a mask. Why she can't have meals with other residents. Why she has to sit on the porch to talk to family members. She's happy to see us, but it's tough. She cries. We all do.

Half our residents don't have family coming to see them. We hired an extra activities person to help do puzzle books and painting or making clocks and birdhouses out of cigar boxes we collected. People from around the world have heard our story, and they're donating books and sending letters as well as financial donations. You do whatever you can to get through this.

Ninety-nine percent of the people around you might be saying, “It's OK. Lighten up.” But you've got to trust that feeling inside that says, Let's be extra cautious so we can beat this thing.

— As told to David Hochman
 

The Rev. Dr. Derrick DeWitt Sr., 53, is the senior pastor of First Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Baltimore. He is also the chief finance officer for the Maryland Baptist Aged Home, a nursing and rehabilitation facility.

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