COVID-19: Long-term care facilities under siege
BY REBECCA JONES & JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Now that nursing homes and long-term-care facilities are prohibiting visitors due to the spread of COVID-19, it can be difficult to find out what is going on inside.
For family members of this most vulnerable population, who sometimes cannot be reached by cell phone, not knowing is excruciating. Many of the healthcare workers at these facilities go to work without the personal protection equipment so badly needed; their efforts are heroic.
Reported cases at long-term-care facilities now number 10,744, which is 12 percent of New Jersey’s total COVID-19 positive cases.
But it’s the survival rate that has so many worried. Deaths at these facilities now number 1,779, accounting for more than 40 percent of all statewide deaths connected to COVID-19, according to numbers released by New Jersey on Monday, April 20.
In total as of Monday, there are 1,106 patients in 40 Essex County long-term-care facilities with the virus; 226 have died at these facilities, with 39 deaths in Montclair.
“It’s so frustrating,” said Montclair resident Grange Rutan-Habermann, whose 77-year-old friend, Penny Winship, is recovering from COVID-19 inside Montclair Care Center/Gates Manor, at 111-115 Gates Ave. “I call and call, and I can’t get a hold of her. It took me 20 minutes just to talk to somebody. I think they must be short-staffed.”
Winship was released from Mountainside hospital last week and sent back to Montclair Care House to be quarantined in a room with another COVID-19-positive resident.
It is hard to imagine what that quarantine looks like in a facility where residents require aid with basics such as bathing and using the bathroom, and patients with cognitive issues are often unable to follow instructions, she said.
But Rutan-Habermann has hope.
“Penny is a force,” she said. “She directed 32 plays at her own playhouse in New York City, the Pennygate Playhouse. She taught for many years at the Adult School of Montclair. When we heard she was recovering, this made everyone so happy. She did not die. You see everyone drop like flies, but she made it through.”
Winship’s friends still are concerned because they can’t get through to find out how she is doing. “All her friends are calling,” Rutan-Habermann said. “No one can get in touch with her.”
Rutan-Habermann has repeatedly been told by staff that Winship can’t come to the phone because she is already on the phone. “It doesn’t make sense,” she said. “I feel like I’m not getting accurate information.”
Montclair Local reached out to Montclair Care House for comment and was directed to a voicemail that was no longer taking messages because it was full.
Montclair resident Marie Artie-Lee Kowalski, who also has a friend living at Montclair Care Center, said, “I feel they are doing the best they can. Everything is very harried, but they are small and they are taking care of their people.”
Erica Myers, the admissions and social services director, told Kowalski that all residents and staff have recently been tested for COVID-19.
Until the April 20 state reports were released, getting accurate counts of COVID-19 cases and casualties at these facilities was an ongoing problem. Both state and Montclair officials have said the release of the number of cases relating to each facility would be an invasion of privacy for the residents. Health Commissioner Judith M. Persichilli had continued to maintain at daily briefings that the facilities were the homes of residents.
Although all long-term-care facilities should report suspected outbreaks immediately to their local health departments, Montclair health officials maintained that privacy.
“In order to respect the privacy of these individuals and their families, no further information can be provided regarding cases or deaths that have occurred in Montclair,” said Katya Wowk, Montclair’s communications director.
But on Monday, the state released information. One Sussex County facility, Andover Subacute and Rehabilitation Center, was investigated after a report that 17 bodies were found in storage last week. The facility was required to submit a plan of correction and hire a new administrative manager, infection prevention specialist and chief nurse officer. Deaths there total 31.
Over last weekend, state teams visited 21 long-term-care facilities to inspect and assess their compliance with state and federal regulations and guidelines.
“The survey teams are looking at infection control, staffing, availability of personal protective equipment, and implementation of an outbreak response plan. For any facilities that have been identified and issued deficiency reports, they will be required to submit to the Department of Health directed plans of correction this week,” Persichilli said at Monday’s briefing.
Gov. Phil Murphy has said that it’s time to address the problem of staff shortages in long-term-care facilities. “In addition to our Department of Health teams,” he said in a press conference last Friday, “we already have a volunteer army we are going to deploy.”
With the rollout of more robust testing, the state hopes to begin more testing at the facilities in south for both workers and residents in the next two weeks, Persichilli said.
LONG TERM CARE EMPLOYEES
Employees of these facilities can be asymptomatic and work at several facilities.
“There’s a reason why they’re working in several places. It’s because the wages are not enough to support what they need to do to support their families, put food on the table, and they’re working their little hearts to the bone here, just trying to survive. What I’d rather do is take better care of them, making sure that they understand their own health and well-being and how that’s transferred to whatever patient they’re taking care of, at whatever facility,” Persichilli said on Monday.
Murphy again pointed to the heroic efforts of the staff at long-term-care facilities, who are working for very low wages and many without proper personal protective equipment.
“We’ve got heroic employees, not just healthcare workers in hospitals, but in long-term-care facilities and veterans homes, in psychiatric hospitals, in corrections facilities, in homes for the developmentally disabled, whatever it might be,” he said.
“And in too many cases in this country, and in this state, they’re not compensated what they should be compensated, at the levels they should be compensated, and they’ve been going in without the armor that they should have had and need. I would say no more acutely than in long-term-care facilities. You can assume that’s something that we’re looking at in a very comprehensive way.”
‘They have relationships with these people’
The Rev. Campbell B. Singleton, of Union Baptist Church, dropped off a prayer basket and food for the staff at Family of Caring nursing home last Thursday. As of Monday, April 20, 14 residents there have died.
“We have heard that some of the nursing homes are experiencing shortages, so we called to ask how we could provide support,” Singleton said, speaking over the weekend.
The church delivered food, because that’s what they requested, Singleton said, but they also included prayer cards and books, wrist bands, and stress balls.
“We were told how much it meant to the workers. It encouraged their hearts. They must be traumatized. People are dying, and they have relationships with these people. And it’s dangerous what they’re doing. They’re in harm’s way, and they’re not flinching.”
After two residents and one administrator died of complications due to COVID-19 in March, Family of Caring required staff members who show symptoms to self-quarantine immediately.
Jonathan Mechaly, a spokesman for the facility, didn’t respond for comment.
Montclair Manor, at 403 Claremont Ave., is also “food-insecure,” Singleton said. “We are providing a $250 gift certificate to Montclair Manor to purchase food at Costco. We will also provide soul food to support [Family of Caring] for a second week.”
Katie York, director of Senior Services/Lifelong Montclair, told Montclair Local that her team would be reaching out to all of the long-term care facilities in Montclair this week. She also plans to work with Toni’s Kitchen to try to get food/care items delivered to the facilities that need it.
The five facilities located in Montclair listed in Monday’s report:
- Horizon Manor North—9 positives, 1 death
- Horizon Manor South—7 positives, 2 deaths
- Gates Manor/Montclair Care Center—24 positives, 8 deaths
- Waterview Center—52 positives, 14 deaths
- Family of Caring—36 positives, 14 deaths
Montclair’s number of 32 deaths as of Monday provided by the Montclair Health Department reflects only residents whose primary home address is in Montclair.
“The information the state posted [on Monday] includes both short- and long-term residents and staff. Our cases are only long-term residents of the facility and staff that may reside in Montclair and were tied to the outbreak,” said Montclair Health Department Director Sue Portuese.