Despite strengthened care protocols and improved infection-control practices in Connecticut and throughout the country, nursing homes have been unable to stem the rise in COVID-19 cases.
The two Connecticut nursing homes with reported cases of COVID-19 – Evergreen Health Center in Stafford Springs and Sharon Health Care Center – are operated by Farmington-based Athena Health Care Systems, which also owns facilities in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. Two residents at Evergreen Health Center have died from the infection; and the number of residents with the COVID-19 rose to eight this week. At Sharon Health Care Center, one resident contracted the virus and is quarantined along with the resident’s roommate, as of mid-week.
About once a year, nursing facilities are inspected and rated on staffing levels and the quality of care provided to residents, including how well they prevent infections. Of the 22 Connecticut nursing homes Athena owns, 10 were cited for infection-control violations between 2017 and 2019, according to a Conn. Health I-Team analysis of data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS).
Most of the citations were classified as causing “potential for harm,” the most common type of violation. In each of the cases, the Athena facilities took corrective measures to fix problems, according to CMS. Neither Evergreen Health Center nor Sharon Health Care Center were cited for infection-control practices between 2017 and 2019.
All Athena facilities have extensive policies and procedures related to airborne and infection diseases and are practicing social distancing whenever possible – holding activities, but in smaller groups.
“At the start of this pandemic, we initiated a series of protections aimed at mitigating the threat of coronavirus at our centers. These include restricting visitors from Evergreen, taking the temperature of anyone who enters the facility, requiring anyone who enters the facility to complete a health questionnaire, and increasing monitoring of all residents every day,” Athena Health Care spokesman Tim Brown said, adding those precautions have been adopted at all Athena facilities.
“These protections are in addition to the rigorous health and safety precautions we practice on a routine basis. We also take the temperatures of all of our patients at every shift,” he said.
“There is no greater priority for us than the health and safety of our resident and staff,” Brown said. “We understand this is a difficult time for the residents and hard-working staff of any nursing facility in Connecticut, or even the country. We want our residents, staff and their families to know that we are doing everything in our control to provide a safe environment at all our centers. We also want to thank our incredible staff for their commitment to the health of all our residents.”
Seniors are particularly vulnerable to the virus, and social distancing – one way to curb the spread of the virus – is impossible in nursing homes, given the type of care residents need to receive.
“I am concerned. We know that nursing homes can be a petri dish and they are spreading the virus to the most vulnerable,” said Gov. Ned Lamont during a briefing this week. “We are staying ahead of it as much as we can.”
Nursing homes are becoming hotbeds for the virus throughout the country. In Washington state, the Life Care Center of Kirkland has been linked to 35 deaths. Several nursing homes in Louisiana have been deemed by the state as COVID-19 clusters, and Vermont’s largest-known outbreak is in the Burlington Health & Rehab Center, where four residents have died as of mid-week.
In Connecticut nursing homes employees are doing what they can to prevent the spread of the virus, but they fear for the safety of residents and themselves as they grapple with supply shortages, said Pedro Zayas, spokesman for the SEIU Healthcare 1199 NE union, which represents roughly 19,000 health care workers in Connecticut, about 6,000 working in nursing homes.
“Workers are very worried about exposure to COVID-19. They want to continue providing health care services with the appropriate protective equipment so they can protect nursing home residents and keep showing up to work,” Zayas said. “Workers are also concerned to bring the virus into their homes, families and communities.”
Having access to personal protective equipment (PPEs), cleaning products and effective protocols is crucial, he added.
With the situation poised to get worse before it improves, nursing homes likely will be strained even further.
“Some nursing homes have decent supply inventories; others are struggling with gloves, masks and hand sanitizers,” Zayas said. “There is definitely a lot of concern around each nursing home operator’s capacity to provide sufficient supplies and keep the nursing home adequately staffed.”
Amid this outbreak, CMS has suspended routine, non-emergency inspections of nursing homes and ordered health inspectors to increase oversight of infection-control compliance. The state Department of Public Health (DPH) has restricted all nursing home visitors except first-responders.
Nursing homes in Connecticut have grappled with infection-control practices since well before COVID-19 came along. A recent C-HIT analysis of data from CMS found that between 2017 and 2019, 145 of Connecticut’s 217 nursing homes were cited for infection-control violations. Those 145 facilities had a total of 225 violations.
Of the 22 nursing homes Athena owns in CT, 10 were cited for infection-control violations between 2017 and 2019. The information below includes the level of violation, the number of violations and the overall star rating given by CMS.