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Nursing homes in Waterford, Groton had different outcomes during pandemic

This past spring was the worst of times for many Connecticut nursing homes, with more than 2,700 resident deaths from COVID-19-associated illness reported by the state as of mid-June and 14 staff deaths reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Still, some facilities managed to stave off the virus.

The Day examined the performance of two area nursing homes that had different outcomes: the New London Sub-Acute and Nursing facility, a 120-bed for-profit facility in Waterford; and the Fairview Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Care Center, a nonprofit company in Groton with 120 nursing home beds, 24 independent living homes and 40 homes for residents 55 and older.

One of the nursing home staff deaths reported to the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services involved a certified nurse's aide from Ledyard who worked at the New London Sub-Acute and Nursing facility. By mid-June, 79 residents of the facility had been confirmed to have COVID-19. Eleven had died of illness associated with COVID-19 and four more deaths were classified as "probable" cases.

Fairview has remained free of COVID-19 during the pandemic, with no resident or staff cases reported to the state or federal governments and no violations reported during state inspections.

Abraham P. Torres, 69, a longtime employee of the New London Sub-Acute nursing home, died of the novel coronavirus and pneumonia at Lawrence + Memorial Hospital on May 21. According to his death certificate, the onset of the disease was approximately four weeks earlier, in mid-April. During that time period, the state Department of Public Health inspected the facility and found it had "failed to ensure that appropriate infection control practices were implemented to prevent and control the spread of infection."

The facility was COVID-19-free as of July 10, according to DPH.

Torres had underlying conditions, cardiomyopathy and lupus, that were deemed significant conditions contributing to his death, according to the death certificate. At the time of his death, the Peruvian native lived in a rental home at 1664 Center Groton Road, Ledyard, with his significant other. She has since moved out because she could not afford the rent, according to the landlord, and could not be reached for comment. Torres also has a daughter in the area who did not respond to requests for an interview.

The administrator of the New London Sub-Acute nursing home, Tom Harris, did not return calls from The Day about a federal nursing home report indicating two of the facility's staff members had died from COVID-19. State Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, said by phone that she had spoken with Harris, who told her he incorrectly reported two staff deaths to the CDC. The state DPH confirmed that only one staff death has been reported.

When the General Assembly convenes next week for a special session, nursing homes won't be on the agenda, to the disappointment of advocates. They would like to see the resumption of weekly COVID-19 testing of residents and staff at nursing homes and other protective measures, including the installation of surveillance cameras, accessible by family members, to protect nursing home residents. Gov. Ned Lamont had ordered weekly testing in early June but revised it, based on CDC recommendations, indicating testing could cease after 14 consecutive days without a positive case and resume if any staff member or resident tests positive.

The Lamont administration continues to assure the public the facilities that care for the most vulnerable residents, many of which are now COVID-19-free in Connecticut, are not forgotten. Lamont announced earlier this month that the state has contracted with Mathematica Inc., a Princeton, N.J., company, to conduct an independent review of nursing homes and assisted living facilities' response to the pandemic and identify significant circumstances that may have favorably or unfavorably impacted the severity of outbreak.

An interim report from the $450,000 investigation is expected in mid-August, which will be followed by policy recommendations for the governor and legislative leaders.

COVID-19-free facility in Groton

Not every nursing home in Connecticut fared badly during the first wave of the pandemic. The Fairview Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Care center in Groton had zero residents or staff members infected, according to the facility's administrator and health department reports.

Executive Director Billy Nelson said during a phone interview Thursday that the facility hastened to purchase masks and other personal protective equipment as the pandemic spread into Connecticut in March and instituted universal mask-wearing by employees at the end of March, prior to a recommendation by the CDC. Eye protection, then gowns and face shields for front-line staff followed, based on the CDC recommendations.

Fairview developed a task force early on, adopted the hashtag, #StrongerTogether, and communicated to its 200-plus employees the importance of social distancing and masks and being responsible off the job, Nelson said. Employees received hazard pay from April through mid-July and were rewarded with ice cream and pizza for their commitment. The staff produced videos to communicate to family members that their loved ones were safe and well cared for.

"I can't really stress enough how much credit our employees deserve for the sacrifices they made in their personal lives," he said. "They went from work to home, home to work."

Nelson said the facility's status as a nonprofit organization, affiliated with the Odd Fellows Home of Connecticut, and the donations it received from the community, gave it an advantage.

"I never felt the pressure to put expense control above quality of care and proper equipment for our staff," he said.

Moving forward, Nelson said he would like to see continued weekly testing of staff and residents. The state provided funding for testing through Aug. 31, but after that, it would be impossible for nursing homes to assume the cost, which could be more than $20,000 per week.

"I think it's important that we all recognize that the nursing home industry in Connecticut and across the country has worked extremely hard," Nelson said. "The nursing home industry is not to be blamed for the challenges it has faced during this pandemic. This virus is most dangerous for the individuals we care for. We need to be supportive of the workers and the residents and family members who comprise our industry because of what they've been through."

k.florin@theday.com

Editor's Note: This edition corrects the potential cost of COVID-19 testing for nursing homes.

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