Monster Hunter is a series with a longstanding tradition of being impenetrable to casual first-time players, with systems layered upon systems and tricky combat. In the mainline series Monster Hunter: World provided a multi-platform mainstream breakthrough, while on Switch the recent Monster Hunter Rise followed that lead in applying copious quality of life improvements, and at times aggressive streamlining, to make the experience more palatable for a wide audience. That said, the IP’s broad universe and the intricacies of its monsters are still vitally important factors, and no genre is better suited to making sense of a complex world than a traditional RPG.
Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin may be a sequel, but it’s worth saying right away that you don’t need to have played this spin-off’s debut to jump into the new release — this reviewer hadn’t, despite a borderline obsession with the main games. There are some returning characters along with some assorted nods and winks that no doubt raise a smile for those that fought through the 3DS epic, but nevertheless Capcom takes a generational approach to storytelling and it is certainly a standalone game.
Playing Wings of Ruin with a lot of background knowledge of the main games isn’t necessary either, but it helped us recognise that this could be another welcome gateway for newcomers. Though some settings, monsters and general environs remind us more of the last generation of Nintendo-centric MH games on 3DS — and indeed World — this is a title that opens up an understanding of how monsters have ticks and behaviours, and introduces all the familiar items and their effects. Although knowing monsters from first-hand battles in past games can help a little in initial encounters, the systems and tutorials on hand here make the game accessible to pretty much any player.
As an RPG, Wings of Ruin isn’t shy about simply tagging along with decades-old genre tropes and methods. You have forests, ice areas, a desert and… you get the idea. You visit a village or town and to earn trust you set off completing quests to prove yourself — it’s almost always the same “this monster is causing problems, deal with it for us” scenario. So yes, it’s arguably a bit of a grind, but games like this are designed to be slowly digested over a number of weeks; in that context it works well.
However, the particularly intriguing aspects of Monster Hunter x RPG come in the combat and party building. You are a Rider, part of a group of rather charming folk that opt to raise, befriend and team up with monsters rather than hunt them. Yes, it’s a bit Pokémon to a limited degree — with a questionable practice of stealing eggs from nests, but let’s not go too deep into that — but as a playthrough develops there’s staggering depth to the setup. Each monster has a preferred ‘type’ that feeds into a rock-paper-scissors combat, and they then have varied special moves, abilities and buffs.
You could absolutely bury yourself in the stats, especially once you have the ability to ‘channel’ abilities between monsters, but the game is also generous enough that you can pay minimal attention and just about get away with it. The setup is clever, and you earn ways to expand your roster of monsters and even send them off on expeditions to level them up when outside your party. Particularly later in the story, you find powerful monsters that you want to use but are 20+ levels lower than desired, so sending them off on 20-30 minute jaunts to level up while you continue with saving the world is smart design. This is a game that encourages you to dive into the detail and build the dream party, but doesn’t judge you too much if you instead opt to stick to your old favourites.
Then there’s your Rider, a charming individual that can buy, forge and upgrade a dizzying array of armour and weapons derived from monsters you’ve faced. As always the Monster Hunter fashion is genuinely fabulous, and we had family members react with amusement to seeing our character in a different outfit pretty much every time they watched us play. There’s depth to admire again, as you carry three weapons and conveniently all the varieties fall into three categories — sword, bow, and hammer / horn — that add yet another wrinkle to the combat. Forging armour and weapons with your preferred moves and buffs is genuinely fun, and then you ditch them for something snazzier within a few hours. That part of the Monster Hunter life is brilliantly recreated here.
As mentioned previously, the combat itself incorporates a rock-paper-scissors format, as you try to second-guess opposing monster’s moves to successfully counteract them. When you know a monster’s patterns you have the tools to win well, as you can determine your accompanying Monstie’s next move or swap them out for a different type. There’s the option to target specific parts, and when you trigger combinations you build up to the option to ‘Ride’ your Monstie for a powerful special, healing you both in the process. As enemies become tougher you also learn how to use various items such as bombs and traps, too, so it’s kept interesting.
Despite the notable positives it’s not quite a clean kill with the combat, despite its solid construction and clever variety. For one thing, later in the game battles can drag on to 20 or more turns, even when you’re doing well and heading for an S rank. If you’re working through a dungeon and are getting snarled up in regular fights it can feel a little long-winded as a result; we spent a lot of time trying to duke around enemies as a result, as thankfully they’re visible on the field. You can also speed up battles, which helps a little, and if you’re over-levelled in an area you can also quick resolve a battle for an instant win. AI ‘buddies’ are another very small complaint — they can be very useful at times, but occasionally a little dim in their moves. They don’t intuitively target the same monster parts as you and will use a heal at silly times. These are relatively small complaints in the big picture, however.
When it comes to equipment, party building and combat, the mechanics in place are strong and clearly introduced. There’s far too much depth to go into fully in the space of a review, but suffice to say Stories 2 does an excellent job of keeping things varied.
Out of necessity, a lot of mechanics and detail are introduced slowly, with clear guides to help you find your way. It’s carefully put together so that it’s easy to grasp, but the victim of this is the story progression early on — another genre trope that is inescapable here. There are long stretches of busy work, where you may spend half a dozen hours on quests that achieve nothing of note but introduce useful mechanics. That’s the nature of RPGs, yes, but we would have preferred some slicker storytelling in the early stretch, in particular.
The story itself is quite simple but enjoyable, all told, and it’s certainly boosted by the lead protagonist and the utterly charming relationship they have with their ‘Monsties’, and ‘Ratha’ in particular. It feels like a while before the plot truly lifts off, but the pay-off is effective because of the lead-up and the excellent cutscene work — they mostly run in-engine, and the animation and direction of these scenes is terrific.
What you will notice in cutscenes are performance dips, and you’re going to see a fair bit of that during gameplay, too. There’s no getting around the fact that this title is not particularly well optimised for Switch, which is disappointing considering the stellar work that went into Rise. It feels like this was developed for PC primarily — where it is getting released on the same day — and then squeezed onto Nintendo’s little hybrid. The framerate even appears, bizarrely, to be unlocked, though it only nudges above 30fps very rarely when indoors with very little on screen.
Even if you don’t worry much about performance, especially in a large-scale RPG where there’s no real-time combat, it’s still noticeable. It can vary wildly depending on location and time of day; we’ve seen an area be smooth-ish at daytime and a juddery disappointment at sunset, and there’s a forest area early-on that runs downright poorly, especially in portable mode. It doesn’t stop you playing, but it is nevertheless hard to completely overlook in the worst-affected areas. That’s a bit of a pity, especially as the art-style is a brightly coloured pleasure, while copious voice-acting and beautiful music elevate the storytelling.
Intriguingly, an effort is being made to boost both story progression and no doubt postgame activity via multiplayer; a big strength of the main series that is getting a chance in this spin-off. Only unlocked after a decent number of hours and progress, you can either go into battles against others or embark on co-op quests — the latter is given more focus. The environments are similar to ‘dens’ you find in the story, with the option to team up with assorted players online or use room IDs. We weren’t able to test it extensively for review, but as a means of teaming up with friends and boosting Monstie collections and resources it’s a fun idea that could add even more longevity.
Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin deserves to find a sizable audience. It’s full of charm and boasts depth that can immerse the committed or be dabbled with by those eager to simply experience the story. As a blend of Monster Hunter with a traditional RPG approach it’s an accomplished effort, and offers the sort of meaty experience that’ll keep most players busy for weeks. Switch owners will need to tolerate some disappointing performance, unfortunately, but the overall experience shines nonetheless. It’s a game of bright colours and wholehearted optimism, which is very welcome indeed.
Oh, and you can name your Monsties; trust us, you’re gonna love these companions.
Here’s some news that physical collectors will find quite concerning – the retail version of Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin could potentially require a download. And it may be more than just a day-one patch.
According to Nintendo Everything, photos it has received of the game’s box (from a retail worker) seem to indicate a download will be required in order to play the hard copy of the game. On the front, it says “download required” and on the back, it’s mentioned how the game requires a download of at least 15GB. The eShop file size listing is 13.5GB.
While storage requirements aren’t necessarily a problem – especially if you own a MicroSD card, there’s still the issue of the physical copy not featuring the entire game on it, which some might feel defeats the purpose of purchasing a hard copy in the first place.
Capcom has made no mention of the game requiring a download of this size previously and there’s no reference of it elsewhere, so with any luck this is just a misprint. If we hear anything else, we’ll update this post.
Monster Hunter Stories 2: Wings of Ruin in out in just a few short weeks, but ahead of that launch we were able to get our hands on it and were granted the luxury of giving you all a bit of a whack from the ol’ impressions stick. The first game came out on the 3DS in the West after the Switch had launched and didn’t perhaps get the audience it deserved, so the pressure’s on for this sequel to grab the audience share it missed out on. So, how’s it looking so far?
Well, if you’re not familiar with Monster Hunter Stories as a concept, it differs from the standard Monster Hunter formula in a number of ways. First and foremost, you are not a hunter, you’re a rider. Whereas hunters kill monsters, riders kill monsters with monsters that they’ve befriended. The gameplay is also leagues apart from the mainline series, as Stories takes on the form of a turn-based JRPG.
Similarly to something like Miitopia, you’ll have numerous members of your party, but you’re only in direct control of your player character rather than your ‘Monstie’ (a term used to distinguish friendly monsters from your bog-standard common or garden monster) or any partners that might be tagging along.
This at first may seem detrimental to your control and efficiency as a unit, but the game is very open with what moves and/or attacks everyone else on your team is going to use before you make your final decision, meaning that you can plan accordingly and apply tactics where necessary. You can also command your Monstie to use specific special moves called Skills if you really need to, so it’s a limitation only in part.
When it comes to attacking you have a fair few options at your disposal. You can perform a Power, Technical, or Speed attack, and this trifecta functions like a rock-paper-scissors system, with Power beating Technical, Technical beating Speed, and Speed beating Power. This is important because if an enemy is targeting you (which the game also kindly highlights) and you decide to target them back, you’ll enter a head-to-head situation, whereby the winner of the conflict – through the rules of the three attack types we just mentioned – will get to attack, and the loser will deal no damage whatsoever, which can be crippling for said loser.
Each monster also has weaknesses and resistances to specific weapon types, categorised into Slashing, Piercing, and Blunt. When you first encounter a monster you’ll have no idea which weapon is most effective, so you’ll have to get experimenting by swapping out your weapon, which you can do once per turn and thankfully doesn’t ‘use up’ your move for that turn.
There are also tactics where you and your Monstie can perform a Double Attack against a foe, and ride your Monstie mid-battle when your Kinship gauge is full, and it’s all these little wrinkles that add up to what is really quite a detailed and nuanced system, even if on their own they’re relatively simple. The end result is a combat system that’s really rather excellent, and provides intense battle situations but without overwhelming the player at any point. Nice work, Capcom.
But combat isn’t everything this game has to offer, you’ll be exploring vast swathes of land littered with monsters, resources, and – most importantly – Monster Dens. These dens are essentially little mini-dungeons with monsters, resources and – most importantly again – nests, where you can find eggs to hatch into new Monsties to join your party.
If that sounds a bit Pokémon then yeah, it is a bit, but that’s no bad thing whatsoever. Each time you find an egg your partner Navirou will give you an indication as to whether it’s a good egg or not, and the patterns give away what kind of Monstie you can expect. It’s a fun system that makes each Monstie feel deserved, but we did see quite a few duplicates from time to time, so bear that in mind.
The world of Monster Hunter Stories is rich and diverse, and its art style is just to die for. The whole game pops visually, cutscenes are engaging and don’t outstay their welcome, and the cast of characters is (mostly) endearing. Our feelings about the Felyne Navirou are a bit mixed; he’s clearly the comic relief of the story but his Bubsy-like voice and relentless use of cat puns did grate on us. We miss the Felynes that just went ‘mrow’.
All in all, Monster Hunter Stories 2 is looking to be a fine spinoff that truly feels like it fits in the Monster Hunter universe, but without simply emulating the mainline games. From what we’ve played so far we have high hopes that this is going to be an RPG well worth your time, so keep an eye out for our full review when it rolls in around launch day on 9th July.
“Known him 30yrs, respect his many electoral successes, but don’t respect him running into fridges to avoid accountability.”
He added, cheekily: “Whenever you’re ready Prime Minister…”
Fans rushed to the comments section to share their views on what would possibly be one of the most highly-anticipated interviews for the UK.
One wrote diplomatically: “Piers, that was you at your best and I would love to see Boris Johnson on there. I think anyone who wants to run this country should have to open up about their lives (warts & all).”
UPDATE: Capcom has revealed more about Monster Hunter Rise update 3.0.
The update introduces a new variant of Valstrax, which is the signature monster from Ultimate Generations.
“This mysterious Elder Dragon is known by the name Crimson Glow Valstrax and can soar through the skies by changing the shape of its wings, allowing it to fly and attack from unusually high altitudes.
“Next, Apex Zinogre enters the fray with an electric “golden lighting” look and different attacks that might leave hunters in shock. Additionally, a new quest featuring an epic showdown with the Thunder Serpent Narwa and Wind Serpent Ibushi will provide players with a highly-anticipated new ending to the storyline.
“This new story ending, as well as the two new monsters, new quests, new weapon and armor options, new skills, and more will be available to players for free when Ver. 3.0 releases later today.”
Update 3.0 also adds a brand new DLC pack, which adds new voice options, gestures, hairstyles, sticker sets, background music and more.
Capcom is holding a special digital event for Monster Hunter Rise and Monster Hunter Stories 2.
The Monster Hunter Digital Event takes place at 3pm BST on May 26. You can watch the event as it takes place by clicking play on the video below.
The Capcom live stream will focus on Nintendo Switch game Monster Hunter Rise, specifically the 3.0 update.
“Monster Hunter Digital Event – May 2021 is fast approaching!” reads a Capcom tweet. “Tune in for details on #MHRise Update Ver. 3.0 and the latest news on #MHStories2.”
Express Online will update the article with the Monster Hunter 3.0 patch notes when they’re announced by Capcom.
Update 3.0 is expected to add new monsters to hunt down, as well as quality of life improvements.
There’s a chance fans will also be treated to a new area to explore, as well as new items to unlock.
Monster Hunter Rise is already one of the highest rated games in the series to date, so any post-release content will only make it better.
Monster Hunter Stories 2, on the other hand, is a new Nintendo Switch game launching in July.
“The vibrant world of Monster Hunter Stories 2,” reads the official description.
“Hatch, raise, and live alongside monsters as a Monster Rider in this fun-filled RPG set in the Monster Hunter universe.
“Our epic tale begins with the mass disappearance of Rathalos from around the world. At the start of the story, you meet a Wyverian girl who knew your illustrious grandfather, Red. She has been entrusted with an egg, but what’s inside it?
“The fate of the world hangs in the balance as the exciting narrative about the Wings of Ruin unfolds.”
As for Monster Hunter Rise, the action-RPG is set in the ninja-inspired land of Kamura Village.
“The critically acclaimed action-RPG series returns to the Nintendo Switch!” Nintendo continues.
“Set in the ninja-inspired land of Kamura Village, explore lush ecosystems and battle fearsome monsters to become the ultimate hunter. It’s been half a century since the last calamity struck, but a terrifying new monster has reared its head and threatens to plunge the land into chaos once again.
“Hunt solo or in a party with friends to earn rewards that you can use to craft a huge variety of weapons and armour. Brand new gameplay systems such as the high-flying ‘Wire Action’ and your canine companion ‘Palamute’ will add exciting new layers to the already robust combat that Monster Hunter is known for.”
Texas did not report any COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes until mid-April 2020, despite reports of outbreaks starting in March. By April 15, the state reported that 98 nursing home residents had died. For the next three months, the reported death toll mostly stayed below 100 people per week.
A deadly summer surge began in mid-July, when the state reported 209 nursing home resident deaths from COVID-19 in one week. August was even deadlier: The state reported more than 400 nursing home resident deaths in a single week. Cases and deaths started to decline in the fall, although they remained higher than during the spring.
The second peak came after the holidays, when coronavirus surged across Texas. For three weeks, Texas reported more than 400 nursing home resident deaths every week. In January alone, more than 1,400 nursing home residents died.
Nursing home residents and staff began to get vaccinated in December, resulting in a steep decline in cases and deaths starting in late February. By March, the state reported fewer than 50 deaths linked to COVID-19 among nursing home residents each week.
Overall, Texas reported that nearly 9,000 nursing home residents died of COVID-19 from April 2020 to April 2021. In total, one out of five COVID-19 deaths reported in Texas were of nursing home patients.
Early in the pandemic, COVID-19 deaths in Texas were concentrated among nursing home residents — about 40% of all deaths reported in Texas in June. That proportion began to decline as the pandemic became more deadly for people outside of nursing homes.
One year into the pandemic, COVID-19 has taken a heavy toll in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. When the coronavirus invaded nursing homes in March 2020, 1 in 5 infected people older than 80 had to be hospitalized, and nearly 8% of them died.
As of April 14, 8,961 nursing home residents with COVID-19 have died in Texas — nearly 10% of the state’s estimated 90,000 nursing home residents. That’s about 20% of the COVID-19-related deaths reported for the state. More than a dozen facilities lost at least 30 residents to the virus.
“It’s just a monster,” said Cristina Arizmendi Mirelez, administrator of the Amistad Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Uvalde, which cared for about 100 people when the pandemic began and reported 10 deaths and 41 total COVID-19 cases to the state over the past year.
One year ago this month, the state released its first data showing the toll the pandemic was taking on nursing home residents. By Easter 2020, 1 in 6 COVID-19 related deaths in Texas were nursing home residents.
Within a month, the death toll in Texas nursing homes reached nearly 500.
The following 12 months would bring nightmarish death tolls, isolation, panic and grief for hundreds of thousands of nursing residents, staff and families.
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Lynda Langford and her husband, Ray, raised their son on their 4,000-acre ranch in Uvalde, about 90 miles west of San Antonio. She taught English and computer skills at the local high school before retiring two decades ago.
In 2019, 74-year-old Lynda took a spill in their home out in the country and broke her arm and shoulder. The pain medication made her dizzy, and even after she stopped taking the meds, her falls happened more frequently. Home care was hard to come by in their rural area.
When the pandemic hit, the couple was close to making a difficult decision to move Lynda into long-term care so she wouldn’t be home alone while Ray was working on the ranch.
“I’ve never been away from home without my husband,” she said. “It scared me.”
Phillip Hopkins, president of TAG Management Services, which runs nine rural nursing homes including Amistad, where Langford would soon be living, wasn’t particularly worried about early reports about the coronavirus, which seemed like another virus scare that would likely fizzle out.
“I was watching the news, and I thought, ‘This is going to be another swine flu or something like that,’” said Hopkins, a 25-year veteran of the business.
When the novel coronavirus outbreak became a full-fledged global pandemic, he said, “We were all on our heels. We had a pandemic plan, but we’d never really dealt with it before.”
Then, in March 2020, cases of the virus began showing up in Texas nursing homes.
“That first case, it’s like your heart stopped,” Hopkins said.
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Arizmendi Mirelez couldn’t believe the phone call she received from Hopkins in mid-March, instructing her to shut down the Amistad facility to visitors the following day as part of the governor’s statewide disaster declaration and on orders from federal officials.
“My facility was always full of families and visitors, and to think that I have to lock those doors and not let anyone in was unheard of,” she said. “It was scary for my residents. I thought, ‘What are they going to do? They’re so used to their wives or daughters or sons being here every single day. How are we going to fill that void for them?’”
Amistad nurse Maria Perez remembers the pain of seeing residents waving at their loved ones through windows as the death count began to rise across the nation.
“You can see the toll that it takes on the residents,” Perez said. “But you know, unfortunately, it was for their own safety.”
Administrators at facilities across Texas began daily phone calls with one another and with the Texas Department of State Health Services. New rules from Austin and Washington D.C., changed often, sometimes daily, as officials desperately tried to keep the virus out of the facilities.
“It was just like a bunch of pigs on roller skates.”
President at TAG Management Services
Administrators at Focused Post Acute Care Partners, which runs 31 facilities in Texas, had to communicate new rules about protective gear and other protocols to some 2,300 employees nearly every day, said CEO Mark McKenzie.
“Once we got into the flow of it, it almost felt like Groundhog Day, every day,” McKenzie said. “We’d wake up, we’d have two new modifications to the modifications from yesterday. Early on, we were just all stunned.”
Hopkins described the first few weeks as pure chaos: “It was just like a bunch of pigs on roller skates, you know. We were just going all different directions.”
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Hopkins said he and other nursing home administrators felt they were fighting an invisible enemy. With no COVID-19 testing being done for asymptomatic people in Texas in the early months, it was impossible at first to tell whether the virus was getting past their safeguards.
Then residents began dying, and the deaths mounted throughout the spring. Something close to panic began to creep into some communities.
Shortly after the Focused Care nursing home in Crane County, near Odessa, reported its first case in May, County Judge Roy Hodges issued a court order to quarantine residents and staff until everyone could be tested.
“I was shocked when … two armed law officers showed up at our doors in Crane and refused to let anyone in or out. They blocked the front and back doors of our community,” McKenzie said in an editorial at the time.
Three dozen employees — more than half the facility’s staff — quit that day, fearing that one day they’d go to work “and would never get to home again,” McKenzie said.
No one had tested positive in Crane County in nearly two months. Before that, the county had only two confirmed cases. When Focused Care’s residents and staff members were tested that week under a court order, 21 people were confirmed to have the virus, according to reports. Among the five employees infected was a local high school student. Traditional graduation celebrations for the school district were canceled.
Nursing home officials and residents breathed a sigh of relief when Gov. Greg Abbott ordered testing for all residents in May.
When the first round of test results came back at Focused Care at Corpus Christi, none of the 47 residents or 53 staff members were positive, said Taneicha Grady-Bravo, the facility’s executive director of operations.
Upon hearing the news, she said, the staff let out a loud cheer, exchanging air hugs and high fives across the room.
Grady-Bravo sat down in her office and cried.
“That was a turning point for us to say, ‘OK, we got this, let’s go.’”
The relief didn’t last. Within a couple of months, the Corpus Christi area became a hot spot, grabbing national headlines when a 6-week-old infant died from the virus and again when nearly a quarter of all tests citywide came back positive for the virus.
That’s also when the first COVID-19 case showed up at Focused Care at Corpus Christi. There would be 18 more infections and four virus-related deaths among its residents by the end of September, according to state data.
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Lynda Langford was terrified.
At the end of July, Texas nursing homes recorded their deadliest seven-day stretch since the pandemic began, with 423 deaths reported.
And Langford was about to move into one.
“You’d read the news, and the nursing homes were the worst places for COVID,” Langford said. “In San Antonio, the big city next to us, they were having horrible times. Just running rampant through a whole building. And a lot of [nursing home residents] didn’t survive. That scared me.”
After a few days in an assisted-living facility, Langford moved into Amistad in August. She went immediately into a quarantine unit for two weeks.
When she saw all the safety protocols the staff were going through every time they came into her unit, she felt safer.
“I’ll never forget, they’d come in my room and do whatever they were going to do, and then they’d walk out and take all that stuff off — that blue gown, the masks, all of that — and every time they came into my room they’d do that,” Langford said. “And I just couldn’t believe it. But they did, and I never saw them cut corners.”
“That’s a horrible thing, to watch those ambulances go by.”
Resident at Amistad Nursing and Rehabilitation Center
She often sat at her window, which faced the street in front of the facility entrance, and watched ambulances come and go at all hours of the night. She knew many of the people inside the ambulances were COVID-19 cases. Several, she said, didn’t come back.
“That’s a horrible thing, to watch those ambulances go by,” she said.
Socializing in the common areas and the dining room wasn’t allowed, per COVID-19 regulations, but when one of the residents died, Langford said, everyone would stand in their doorways, cry together and talk about happy memories with their friend — a socially distant memorial.
Near the end of summer, the forced isolation of nursing home residents was drawing increasing criticism across the nation. That led to state and federal officials making the decision to allow “essential caregivers” — usually a friend or family member who regularly visited before the lockdowns — to be trained, screened and allowed regular visits with their loved ones inside the nursing homes.
In August, Abbott began permitting nursing homes that had no active COVID-19 cases among residents, and no cases among staff for the previous two weeks, to allow limited outside visits.
Only a small portion of the state’s nursing homes met that criteria at the time.
At Focused Care at Brenham, the change was immediate, said Jeannie Dupree, executive director of operations. She remembers a man who was in hospice care and stopped eating when his wife couldn’t visit him every day after the lockdowns began.
“But then once we encouraged her to apply to be an essential caregiver, he perked up,” Dupree said. “It was such a radical change that they’re actually looking at getting him off hospice.”
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Langford celebrated her 74th birthday at the nursing home in October. Her husband, their son and his wife and children were there, along with friends.
“We had my birthday party through the window. All my friends came and stayed outside, I was inside,” she said, chuckling. “It’s better than nothing, but it’s not good.”
For Langford, it was the second milestone she’d missed because of the pandemic. In May, she and her husband had planned a large family celebration for the couple’s 50th wedding anniversary at their favorite place along the river north of Uvalde, but they canceled it because of the pandemic.
Langford still wipes away tears when she thinks about it.
Throughout autumn, deaths across the state and the nation began to drop, and nursing homes in Texas saw the same decline.
“We had my birthday party through the window. All my friends came and stayed outside, I was inside.”
Resident at Amistad Nursing and Rehabilitation Center
In Corpus Christi, Focused Care’s Grady-Bravo said that by September, her staff was fighting exhaustion and burnout. The facility started trying to boost morale through “virtual vacations” — themed weeks with food and music representing various vacation spots around the world. The first one was Hawaii.
“They absolutely loved it,” Grady-Bravo said of residents and staff. “We still do it. Everyone looks forward to it.”
The holidays brought a fresh round of challenges as state and federal officials told nursing home operators that residents must be allowed to leave and go visit family over Thanksgiving and Christmas.
It was welcome news for some, but it brought fears of a holiday-fueled “third wave” of COVID-19 deaths.
“Sometimes there’s a disconnect between the directive and what a lay person would think is a common-sense approach, and we have to follow the directive,” McKenzie said. “They could take their loved ones home during the holiday, and we couldn’t stop it, and they could bring them back.”
At Focused Care at Summer Place in Beaumont, two residents tested positive for COVID-19 after one of them went home for Thanksgiving, McKenzie said.
In Uvalde, Langford celebrated the holidays while separated by glass from her family, who again gathered outside the window. But she avoided catching the virus, even as the nation endured its highest-ever spike in deaths and hospitalizations.
The week before Christmas, the first batch of the coronavirus vaccines began arriving at Texas nursing homes.
Meanwhile, at Texas nursing homes, deaths spiked a second time, with a high of 410 in one week in early January.
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Amistad was among the first facilities in the state to receive vaccines, and staff began receiving doses on Dec. 23.
Langford didn’t need convincing when her turn came in January. She remembers taking the polio vaccine orally on a sugar cube while she was in high school in the 1960s and how that saved her generation from a childhood illness that paralyzed 2% of those who contracted it.
“I didn’t hesitate,” Langford said. “I’ve got a better shot with the vaccine than I do without it. I feel like I can get the virus now and live through it.”
More than 70% of the nursing home’s residents, or their families on their behalf, agreed to the shot when it was first offered, said Arizmendi Mirelez, the Amistad facility administrator.
But Hopkins said staffers were harder to convince. Only about a third of the staff agreed to get vaccinated, although those numbers went up “once more people started getting vaccinated and didn’t grow tails,” he said.
As of mid-March, nearly 90% of the staff and residents at Amistad had gotten at least one dose. Meanwhile, Focused Care facilities reported more than 70% of residents vaccinated and more than half of its staffers. At least one Focused Care facility near the Panhandle has 90% of its staff and residents vaccinated, McKenzie said.
By April 6, 1,212 of the state’s 1,223 nursing homes had administered vaccines to residents or staff, according to the state health department. But the virus hasn’t been defeated in Texas nursing homes.
In mid-February, a historic snowstorm and freeze delayed a vaccination clinic at Focused Care Brenham, and shortly after, 18 residents and staff tested positive for the virus in the facility’s only big outbreak since the pandemic began. Some of those residents had recently received the vaccine, but the injection may not have had not had a chance to become fully effective yet, Dupree said. Four of the infected residents died, although COVID-19 was not confirmed as the cause of death. Three of them had declined to be vaccinated, company officials said.
It was a critical reminder that in spite of the relaxing of state pandemic restrictions recently, her company had good reason to keep its protocols in place, she said.
“You realize that we definitely need to still keep our vigilance and keep everything going, because you never know,” she said.
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With more residents being vaccinated and Texas removing restrictions on masking and business capacity, nursing home administrators celebrated a move in late March by state health officials to allow vaccinated residents to get unlimited close-up visits for the first time in a year.
Hopkins can’t wait to hear the sounds of a nursing home bustling with visitors, socializing and joking and bickering in the common areas, rather than the relative quiet of the last few months.
“When I walk into the nursing home, I want to hear it. I want it to be loud, you know? Something going on. I want to hear the residents in the dining room,” he said. “I like that kind of stuff. It’s just happy.”
Langford knows she’ll probably never move out of the nursing home — she doesn’t believe she’ll ever be able to safely be alone while her husband works on the ranch — but has high hopes for being able to embrace her new life there once the worst of the pandemic passes.
Her first wish is to celebrate her 51st wedding anniversary in May — and have the party that she had to cancel last year.
Earlier this month, she was finally able to hug her husband for the first time since last summer. It was a moment, she said, of pure joy.
“It felt great,” Langford said. “It was awesome.”
Each day, nursing homes report the number of residents who died due to COVID-19 to the Texas Health and Human Services Commission. Between May and July 2020, the Texas Department of State Health Services also provided data from nursing homes. DSHS gathers other state health statistics, including the reported COVID-19 deaths statewide.
The weekly death numbers published here were compiled by subtracting the cumulative number of nursing home resident fatalities reported statewide each Wednesday. The week of Texas’ winter storm in February, the state did not update nursing home COVID-19 data until Thursday, so that data was used instead.
Emily Albracht and Miguel Gutierrez Jr. contributed to this report.