The state’s plan to make a rapid new COVID-19 test available to nursing homes and to provide four sites to isolate nursing home residents sick with the virus is a “game changer” that will save lives, a top health care official said Thursday.
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Speedier tests for nursing home patients who had been sent to hospitals for non-COVID-19 issues but are now ready to return to their residential facilities will free up badly needed hospital beds, according to Matthew Barrett, president and CEO of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities.
Nursing homes have been so worried about allowing potential coronavirus patients back into their facilities that they have been requiring multiple COVID-19 tests for residents before they can be returned from hospitals, Barrett said.
Barrett said allowing nursing homes to use those 45-minute new tests “is going to have a measurable impact on substantially reducing cases backing up in hospital emergency departments.” Other types of testing for the coronavirus can take up to several days to get results, officials said.
“This will free up hospital beds and enable hospitals to better deal with the [predicted COVID-19] surge,” Barrett said.
The Lamont administration this week designated four nursing home sites to welcome residents sickened by coronavirus. Lamont also said a new form of coronavirus test that would allow for very rapid results will be made available to nursing homes.
“Immediately implementing a strategy to isolate COVID-19 patients in alternative recovery sites will be extremely helpful in the overall plan to prevent the spread of the deadly virus,” Barrett said. The health care facility association represents 145 skilled nursing facilities in this state.
State officials and nursing home operators have settled on two existing facilities – Sharon Health Care Center in Sharon and Northbridge Health and Northbridge Health Care Center in Bridgeport, and two vacant facilities – Westfield Care & Rehab Center in Meriden and Torrington Health & Rehab in Torrington.
The vacant facilities are being cleaned and owners are in the process of hiring staff to manage the buildings and care for residents. Sharon and Northbridge already are staffed and ready to go, said Tim Brown, a spokesman for Athena Health Care Systems, which owns all four facilities.
Sharon and Northbridge will each dedicate a floor to people who have contracted the disease, Brown said. Westfield and Torrington will dedicate their entire buildings to those residents.
It was not immediately clear when sick residents would be moved to those sites. Barbara Cass, head of facility licensing and investigations for the state health department, said only that it would be “happening shortly.”
Collectively, the four buildings will provide more than 500 additional beds for COVID-19-positive residents.
Other nursing homes throughout the state are still equipped to care for residents who contract the virus, Cass said. In those buildings, sick patients will continue to be isolated from the healthy ones.
The COVID-19-designated facilities will help save lives by providing extra beds for ailing residents, proponents of the plan said. By Wednesday, 660 nursing home residents had tested positive for the disease, up from 124 a week ago. Ninety-nine had died, up from 13 a week ago.
“Residents of long-term care facilities represent our most vulnerable population during this pandemic, as the virus can spread quickly within the enclosed environment,” Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell said. “We are committed to doing everything we can to make sure our nursing home residents get the care they need.”
State officials said Wednesday that nursing homes will soon require hospital patients to have two consecutive negative COVID-19 tests before they are admitted to those facilities. Some long-term care centers have already adopted that mandate.
The state health department is working with hospitals to get more patients tested before discharge so they can go to the nursing homes. There are more than 2,000 empty beds available across all of the state’s long-term care facilities.
Officials last week announced a plan to pay Connecticut’s 213 nursing homes about $35 million – a 10 percent increase – over the next three months to cover costs associated with the coronavirus crisis. The state also will pay $600 a day per patient to the facilities housing COVID-19-positive residents.
Nursing home ratings
Both the Northbridge and Sharon nursing homes received overall ratings of average – three out of five stars – on the US. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services’ Nursing Home Compare website.
Northbridge was cited five times for health issues during the latest inspection, reported on Aug. 1. Sharon Health Care Center was cited for six health issues on March 27, 2019.
All but one of the violations was classified as either causing or having the potential to cause “minimal harm.” One citation against Sharon concluded that a patient suffered “actual harm” and involved a resident slipping in the shower.
Neither facility was cited for fire or safety code violations.
The average number of citations per inspection for Connecticut nursing homes is 7.1 for health infractions and 0.6 for fire and safety code issues.
Critics of the Nursing Home Compare site say it relies on limited data compiled from a few points in time and doesn’t always reflect a facility’s ability to quickly resolve problems.
Both facilities also received average ratings for staffing. Northbridge was ranked “above average” for quality of care. Sharon was ranked average.
Fines and citations are common for nursing homes, and federal health officials track and post penalties imposed over the last three years. Reasons for the fines are not posted.
Northbridge was fined once in the last three years, and ordered to pay $6,500 in August 2018, according to the website.
Sharon was fined twice: $4,758 in May 2017 and $10,839 in March 2019.
‘Our lives are in jeopardy’
As the state moved ahead with its plans Wednesday, nursing home workers said they’re being forced to care for residents without proper protective equipment. In some cases, they’re fashioning gowns out of garbage bags or wearing a single surgical mask for an entire week.
Rob Baril, president of the New England Health Care Employees Union, District 1199 SEIU, said about 500 of his union’s 6,000 nursing home workers have contracted COVID-19 or are self-isolating with symptoms.
Multiple nursing home employees have died, he said, including a nurse who worked at the West River Healthcare Center in Milford. He did not have a precise count of the fatalities.
“Very likely, a minimum of 20% of the COVID-19 cases that are active in Connecticut have been through the vector of nursing homes, either in residents or patients and of course, workers as well,” Baril said. “We’re calling attention to this crisis.”
“We’re aware of a number of different workers who are quite ill,” he said. “My fear … is over the next week, we may start getting much more bad news.”
State data show that 83 of Connecticut’s 213 nursing facilities have at least one COVID-19-positive resident. The state has not disclosed the number of cases at each facility, leaving family members and other loved ones in the dark as nursing homes bar visitors and the disease continues to spread.
The state also has not released data on the number of nursing home workers with coronavirus. After The Mirror wrote about the gap in mandated reporting, state officials said they would begin to collect that data. A spokesman for the health department said Wednesday that the information was not yet available.
Nursing home employees issued a plea for help Wednesday, calling on the state to direct more protective gear and other resources to the facilities.
“This is serious. Our lives are in jeopardy,” said Chelsea Daniels, a licensed practical nurse at Fresh River Healthcare in East Windsor. “We don’t have an option to work from home. We are reusing personal protective equipment.”
“If we die, who’s left to take care of the residents?” she asked. “We shouldn’t have to beg for PPE, and we shouldn’t have to beg to be protected.”
Carol Dixon, who is part of the housekeeping staff at the Saint Mary Home in West Hartford, said she knows of at least seven colleagues who are out sick. Administrators at her facility have not kept staff members apprised of all the residents and workers who are ill, she said, deepening concerns.
“Not knowing is the problem,” she said. “When you know, you can prepare yourself. When you don’t know, you walk in and it’s terrifying.”
Marshalee Blidgen said she was fired from her job as a part-time certified nursing assistant at Saint Mary this week after refusing to work on a floor with residents who showed coronavirus symptoms. Her 13-year-old daughter has asthma, Blidgen said, so she walked out of her shift. She was later fired.
“I’m scared and I feel betrayed” she said. “They should be looking out for the CNAs. I know I have duties, but on the other hand, my family comes first.”
With regard to protective equipment, administrators at Saint Mary said they are following guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Three residents of the facility have tested positive for COVID-19 and have been hospitalized. Three employees have also contracted the disease and are recovering at home.
They declined to comment on Blidgen’s situation.
State officials said Wednesday they are working to address shortages in protective gear.
“We’re going to get that gear out to people as fast as we humanly can,” Gov. Ned Lamont said. “We’ve got a good backlog. We’ve got it on order. Frontline workers are our number one priority.”
“In the meantime,” he said, “if you have to wear a mask you make yourself, do that.”