Amidst a deadly pandemic, an unlikely question: When can hairdressers return?

  • Hairdresser and LNA Tammie Richard talks with resident Jeanne Woodberry, 94, at the Hillsborough County Nursing Home in Goffstown on Friday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Hairdresser and LNA Tammie Richard talks with resident Jeanne Woodberry, 94, at the Hillsborough County Nursing Home in Goffstown on Oct. 16. Woodbury gets her hair done on Fridays. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Hairdresser and LNA Tammie Richard talks with resident Jeanne Woodberry, 94, at the Hillsborough County Nursing Home in Goffstown on Friday, October 16, 2020. Woodbury gets her hair done on Fridays. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Hairdresser and LNA Tammie Richard talks with resident Jeanne Woodberry, 94, at the Hillsborough County Nursing Home in Goffstown on Friday, October 16, 2020. Woodbury gets her hair done on Fridays. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 10/21/2020 5:21:06 PM

When the requests for hairdressers first started pouring in, New Hampshire’s nursing homes were in the throes of a coronavirus crisis.

Eighty one percent of the coronavirus deaths in the state were related to long-term care facilities, the highest percentage in the country. Ten facilities said at least a quarter of their residents tested positive. One facility reported nearly a quarter of their residents had died from the virus.

Yet, at the weekly virtual meetings with epidemiologists, meant to clarify questions about testing procedures and safety precautions, one question kept arising: When can hairdressers come back?

“I feel like we’re coming up with new and creative ways to say no at this point,” said Elizabeth Talbot, a Dartmouth epidemiologist, on the call.

Many nursing homes were in Phase I of the state’s reopening guidelines, which strictly prohibited nonessential personnel, like hairdressers, into facilities. The nursing homes insulated themselves in layers of protective equipment and strict rules – no indoor visitations, no group activities, no communal dining.

But unlike anything else that had been canceled during the pandemic, hairdressing garnered widespread and unrelenting advocacy.

After weeks of the same question, Talbot cut in during a meeting in late June.

“I have been so surprised how often this question is coming to us,” she said. “To me, I would weigh the risk-benefit not favorably to bring someone who is, by profession, in contact with the public, in to do something that feels not essential.”

To health officials, the calculus seemed simple. Allowing a hairdresser into a facility filled with those most vulnerable to the coronavirus to cut hair felt, at best, irresponsible, and at worst, deadly.

“But the fact that you are all asking, and so repeatedly, makes me think I don’t understand something about this,” she continued.

Most people don’t understand the full extent of her job, said Tammie Richard, a hairdresser at Hillsborough County Nursing Home.

Before the pandemic, Richard spent 35 years working in a quaint beauty shop in the belly of the facility.

The salon was a small, windowless room, outfitted with florescent overhead lights and linoleum tile floors. A large mural of a tropical scene, complete with palm trees, sailboats, and beach chairs stretched over two walls.

“I could sit in that chair and have a pina colada!” the residents used to say.

Under the hairdryer, residents chatted with Richard as they sipped coffee and ate snacks from the salon’s mini-fridge. Those who were no longer verbal tapped their foot along to the music (usually the “oldies” radio on Pandora).

“It’s more than just having your hair done,” she said. “It’s the communication and touching them. Some of them don’t get touched in a nice tender way, aside from, ‘Okay, we’re going to roll over and change you.’ There’s a lot more to it than people realize.”

When an outbreak of COVID-19 hit Hillsborough and 30 staff members quit, the facility had no choice but to reassign Richard as a nursing assistant.

Over the next two months, Richard watched curls unfurl and hair grow into unruly mats of gray wisps.

As she entered rooms to care for the residents, some immediately recognized her and perked up.

“Is the beauty shop open yet?” they asked.

When Richard informed one resident she was there to provide nursing care, not hair care, the woman threatened to start a petition to reopen the salon.

Tonya Dubois, the director of nursing at Hillsborough, said the requests from residents and families to resume hair care was constant.

For families, kempt hair was a physical reassurance that their loved ones were being taken care of. For residents, Dubois likened it to taking a shower after a long day of being sick – many of the residents spent hours a day in their rooms during quarantine. Hair cuts helped them feel fresh and confident.

“It was something that meant something for them,” she said. “Everything else was taken away.”

As far as Dubois is concerned, hairdressing services are as important, if not more important than doctors’ appointments for the residents.

“Honestly, if they can have the best quality of life in their last year, that’s going to hold more weight than having doctors’ appointments,” she said. “If you ask the residents, ‘Do you want to go to your cardiac exam or go to hairdressers, most of them will choose hairdressers. They’ll say ‘my hearts fine.’ They don’t want to go looking awful.”

When hair care resumed at Hillsborough, Richard’s schedule was packed.

“We haven’t had a clamoring for church to resume but we did for the salon,” said David Ross, the administrator at Hillsborough. “I won’t tell my priest that.”

However, increasing cases of COVID-19 this month threatens to limit hairdressing again. Last week, Jake Leon, a spokesperson for the Department of Health and Human Services, said he expected some homes to start rolling back to “Phase I,” which prohibits bringing in hairdressers.

Richard’s first appointment was with a woman who had recently recovered from COVID-19. For weeks, the woman had been asking for a hair appointment.

“I swear she was going to cry,” she said. “People don’t understand with them being so closed in their room with no family, it’s even more so important for them to feel well and have somebody come in and talk to them.”




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