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Challenges — And Hope — Loom Large For Doorways’ Cooper House Amid COVID-19 Crisis

Ever since it opened in 1997, Cooper House has prided itself on offering a vibrant quality of life to people who are unable to live independently as a result of HIV/AIDS. The residential facility, located in St. Louis’ Central West End neighborhood, typically serves 36 individuals. But in 2020, that community dwindled to 27 people.

“We have lost some people,” explained Pat Plumley, chief program director for Doorways, the local nonprofit that operates Cooper House. “We have not had anybody move in in the last six months, and we’ve had people move out.”

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Doorways
Cooper House serves people living with HIV/AIDS.

There have also been a couple of hospitalizations of Cooper House residents, and a couple of deaths, amid the COVID-19 crisis. All in all, Plumley said, it’s been a difficult and heartbreaking time, both for residents and staff.

“[Residents] enjoy getting out in the community and being able to feel like they’re part of the community even though they now have a place to call home, which is what Doorways prides themselves in,” she explained. “But being confined in the building is rough, and not being able to see your family or friends or go out for the holidays, it takes a toll on people. I mean, it’s taken a toll on all of us, and we’ve been able to go to work and go home and run to Schnucks. … They’ve really struggled.”

On top of the health concerns and emotional struggles, all of this brings fiscal challenges as well — an issue that is hitting long-term care facilities all across the country hard right now, as detailed recently by the Wall Street Journal.

“We’ve had to redo our budget, and we’ve had to cut back in areas that normally we wouldn't have to, so it has definitely put a damper on some of the things that we would do as an agency,” Plumley told St. Louis on the Air. “We’ve had to rethink some of the projects we wanted to do internally and just accept we won’t be doing them.”

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Dr. Jim Hinrichs & Pat Plumley
Dr. Jim Hinrichs (at left) and Pat Plumley both play key roles at Cooper House.

On Wednesday’s talk show, Plumley joined host Sarah Fenske for a deep look at the challenges currently facing Cooper House, as well as the hopes and solutions she foresees in the months ahead. Joining the discussion was the facility’s medical director, Dr. Jim Hinrichs, an infectious disease specialist who has been involved with Doorways since the 1980s.

Hinrichs noted that many of the residents are at risk for COVID-19 given immunodeficiency and other underlying health issues.

“It's a respiratory virus, to begin with, [and] a good number of them are chronic smokers [or] may have lung disease,” he said. “They have a lot of other comorbid conditions — in addition to their HIV, which we try to keep pretty well under control.”

While Cooper House has yet to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, Hinrichs has been busy encouraging residents and staff to accept the immunization when it arrives. And on Tuesday, the facility got great news: Cooper House is slated to receive doses later this month.

“We’ll be able to get everyone vaccinated,” Plumley said.

Hinrichs, who has been lending his expertise to the St. Louis County Department of Health since early on in the pandemic, also has a personal interest in the challenges facing long-term care facilities and the residents and families they serve. His mother passed away just a couple of weeks ago and, up until she entered hospice in the fall, had been living in a long-term care facility. She became isolated from her loved ones for months.

“We got into that situation that so many other families are in,” Hinrichs said.

He added that he foresees big shifts in the long-term care industry well beyond the pandemic as people grapple with the isolation and tragedy of the past year.

“I think that is going to be the way forward, to try to rely less on those kind of facilities, or at least to make them a short-term kind of situation until somebody can ready their home to accept them there,” Hinrichs said. “I know it had significant deleterious effects on my mom. … With her having eight kids, I think she just needed that reassurance that we were all going to be OK before she felt at peace to pass on.”

As far as Doorways’ future, Plumley touched on the nonprofit’s current capital plan, which includes a new campus that will be part of the North Jefferson corridor revitalization.

“Last year we served over 3,000 people at Doorways. … There’s more and more people being able to survive now with HIV, so our programs are expanding and expanding, because there’s still people that need our help,” Plumley said.

Related Event
What: Doorways’ S.S. Red virtual gala
When: 7 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 6
Where: Online (Tickets and more information available on the Doorways website)

St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is hosted by Sarah Fenske and produced by Alex Heuer, Emily Woodbury, Evie Hemphill and Lara Hamdan. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr.

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Evie is a producer for "St. Louis on the Air" at St. Louis Public Radio.

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