Since March, care home manager Melanie Harris has fought a valiant battle to protect her staff and residents from the grip of coronavirus.

After closing to visitors two weeks before the UK-wide lockdown and abiding by intensive infection control measures, the home remained Covid-free for the first eight months of the pandemic.

But on November 9, she admitted her "world came crashing down" when 33 of her 43 residents tested positive for the disease. Over the next three weeks, 14 of her residents died.

They are among a huge number of elderly care home residents across Wales who have been dying with Covid-19 in recent weeks.

After few deaths throughout the summer autumn, the number of deaths leapt in the first three weeks of November with 111 people with coronavirus losing their lives in care homes in just the last 14 days for which figures are available (November 7 to 20). In total, nearly 1,000 care home residents in Wales have now died with the virus.

War veteran Stanley Crawley, 92, originally from Resolven, died with Covid-19 in November

One of the residents who died at Melanie's home in Resolven was 92-year-old war veteran Stanley Crawley, originally from Resolven, who suffered from Parkinson's disease. Weeks earlier, Stanley had been touchingly reunited with his daughter, Susan Clement, in the home's outdoor meeting area for relatives complete with gazebo, microphones and headphones.

On top of this devastating loss of life, 54 of Melanie's 68 employees also tested positive, forcing her to run the home on a fraction of the normal workforce.

"My life fell apart. I think I was in shock because I hadn't had any residents who were poorly or showing symptoms," said Melanie, who runs Cwm Cartref Care Home in Pontardawe, near Swansea.

“You don't get over something like this - I will never get over it. I'm 54 and I've nursed all my life. We've all heard stories about Covid being on the wards and nurses having to undergo counselling because of what they have experienced. I am dreading that for our staff. They have been brave and focused until now.

“We have lost 14 of our family in three weeks. All of these were classed as Covid deaths. When you have people as frail as this, they haven't got a chance.

"Anyone who believes this virus is not real should come and stand in my position and watch how fast this virus can spread through a home or community. It’s so aggressive and it doesn't spare anyone.

"Until you have witnessed death after death and having to deal with bereaved families and explain their loved ones are poorly, and then within hours that their respiratory rate is falling, then you will understand."

Melanie, a grandmother-of-two, stressed that the home did everything it could to avoid exposure to the deadly virus.

She said all staff came into work with temperature checks, supervised hand-washing was introduced and strict PPE measures were enforced.

Additional domestic staff were also employed to ensure all contact points in the home, including bannisters and door handles, were repeatedly cleaned. This continued with vigour throughout the summer months.

However, it was during routine weekly Covid-19 testing on November 6 that the home received confirmation of a care worker testing positive for the disease.

Cwm Cartref Nursing and Residential Home in Pontardawe, near Swansea

In response, Melanie oversaw blanket testing for all residents and was devastated when three days later, on November 9, it was confirmed 33 residents had tested positive. By the following weekend the disease had already claimed two lives.

"The home is based over two floors but I had positive residents right through the home. How do you cope with that? Three-quarters of my staff also tested positive on top of 33 residents," said Melanie, who has three grown-up children, two sons aged 34 and 24 and a daughter aged 20.

"Our regional manager, Debbie South, virtually moved in to assist us and in the process contracted the virus. Our director Jyoti Joshi worked tirelessly to cover staff shortages and manage the logistics. I was just running on adrenalin.

"I slept here and was doing 18-hour shifts. I left my family and moved in. There was no way I could manage the situation being at home.

"We made a decision to move the positive residents to the downstairs floor and so the whole of the downstairs was positive. The very few who were negative were kept upstairs as we didn't have the capacity to move them. I think this decision has saved lives."

One of the initial losses was 92-year-old war veteran Stanley Crawley, originally from Resolven, who suffered from Parkinson's disease. Weeks earlier, Stanley had been touchingly reunited with his daughter, Susan Clement, in the home's outdoor meeting area for relatives complete with gazebo, microphones and headphones.

War veteran Stanley Crawley, 92, originally from Resolven, died with Covid-19 in November

Prior to this, contact could only be fleeting through the window of the home based on Commercial Road.

"I promised his family I would be there and I never left his side. It has left a deep hole in my heart," said Melanie.

"We were honoured to be invited to Stanley's funeral where the family gave us an angel to overlook us and remind us that his family would always be with us.

"They are not residents to me, they are family. It's absolutely horrific. What got us all through this were the bouquets, flowers, cards and messages we've had from family members.

"I'm a wife, a mum and a gran. Being the manager of a care home is not a job. You have to be 150% dedicated. I gave my life up, it was my choice. This home is me and has been for the past five years.

“My mother-in-law, who also resides at Cwm Cartref, tested positive a fortnight ago and we thought we were going to lose her. We all prepared for the worst but by God somehow she came through.

"My own mother has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and I've not stepped foot inside my mum's home since June because of the worry."

The devastation of coronavirus on care homes has been laid bare in latest Welsh Government figures which show that between March 1 and November 20, 934 residents in Wales have died with confirmed or suspected cases of the disease.

But this rate has been increasing over recent weeks, with 111 losing their lives with Covid-19 over the last fortnight alone (November 7-20).

On the whole, the death rate among Welsh care home residents from all causes is up more than 40% on last year.

Cwm Cartref Care Home has had no new positive cases but remains within the 28-day "red alert" period and is unable to accept visitors or admissions.

All staff have now returned to work and life is gradually returning to some level of normality, although Melanie said the enormity of their loss will be felt for many years to come.

"There is light at the end of the tunnel. We have 28 residents and we have Christmas to think about," said Melanie.

"This home at Christmas time is an array of fun and laughter. I have lights up outside and it's lit up like it has never been before – you can see us coming down the road! We've put lights anywhere we can put them.

“They will have Christmas, I can tell you that now."

Sanjiv Joshi, managing director of the Caron Group which manages 14 care homes across south and mid-Wales, said staff had been "traumatised" by the sudden turn of events.

"The commitment shown by staff was amazing. We also had help from our sister homes and volunteers from the council. They all showed strength and many made huge personal sacrifices. They are the unsung heroes in the war against the virus," he said.

“This is a home which has managed to keep Covid out for so long until November. It has been very difficult. We are fortunate for the support we've had from our local authority, health board, Public Health Wales and the Environmental Health agency in managing the crisis.

"This disease is so indiscriminate and we feel for other homes which have been or are going through this. It is very, very tough."

Mario Kreft MBE, chairman of Care Forum Wales, described Covid as a "cruel and indiscriminate disease" and said it was "absolutely heartbreaking" to hear of the scale and severity of Cwm Cartref's loss.

"The fact that the home kept the virus out for so long is testament to the dedication and tenacity of staff who spared no effort in fighting this disease and continue to do everything possible to protect everyone in their care," he said.

"Sadly, the tragedy at Cwm Cartref is something we as an organisation have seen many times over at other care homes where the diligence and hard work of staff has been in vain.

"This is why we stand together with our social care providers and continue to fight for the necessary support, resources and adequate testing procedures to shield the vulnerable and save lives throughout the winter and do our best to stop other homes sharing in this fate."

Health Minister Vaughan Gething

Health Minister Vaughan Gething said the Welsh Government and its partners had worked hard to protect people living and working in care homes. This included giving them 225 million free items of PPE and the weekly testing of staff.

"People living in care homes are some of our most vulnerable people in society and we have taken extra precautions to keep them safe," he said.

"Just under half of Wales' adult care homes have not reported any confirmed cases of coronavirus in either residents or staff since the start of the pandemic.

"We want to keep it this way because we know just how devastating it can be if coronavirus gets into a care home."

On Friday, December 4 he confirmed that lateral flow tests (LFTs), which give results in as little as 30 minutes, will be made available to test frontline health and social care workers twice weekly.

Mr Gething added: "We will begin rolling out the programme for these groups from December 14, starting with those working in services with high risks of transmission and introducing in lower risk settings in January. We will also be introducing regular asymptomatic testing of staff working in hospice inpatient units and those delivering hospice at home services."

Despite the encouraging news of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine being rolled out next week, it is not yet known when all care home residents in Wales will be able to receive one.

Wales' chief medical officer Dr Frank Atherton getting the vaccines to care homes was a "work in progress" and "very difficult" to do because it needs to be kept at a temperature of around -70C.

"We're trying to find ways, even with this vaccine, to provide a more disseminated approach to distribution," he said.

"There are of course other vaccines in the pipeline - the Oxford vaccine for example which doesn't have such stringent requirements around temperature management and control.

"As that comes online, as we hope, that will that will give us a further ability to work our way through those priority lists."

In addition the Welsh Government has announced £3m for care homes to install temporary "pods" for Christmas visits. Health Minister Vaughan Gething said 100 would be installed for a period of six months with an aim of having 30 ready to use before Christmas.