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National Guard to help with inspecting nursing homes across the state

The state Department of Public Health will receive help from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Connecticut National Guard with inspecting nursing homes in the state, including one in Waterford, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

DPH Director of Communications Av Harris said Monday that with the assistance of the National Guard and the CDC, the department will continue its review of Connecticut's 215 nursing homes, which have been inordinately impacted by the coronavirus. Harris said guardsmen were trained Monday and given personal protective equipment such as masks, gowns and gloves. They are expected to arrive at facilities beginning Tuesday.

State Chief Operating Officer Josh Geballe said during Gov. Ned Lamont's press briefing Monday that 40 guard members trained as EMTs, nurses and sanitarians will assist with inspections along with investigators from the CDC, which has deployed people to every state.

As for southeastern Connecticut, Harris said the DPH has been in the region and will continue to be here on an ongoing basis.

"We can show up at any time, day or night," Harris said. "We have a regulatory role we have to fulfill, and (the facilities) are completely aware of that."

DPH Commissioner Renée Coleman-Mitchell said Monday that she informed Waterford First Selectman Rob Brule and Ledge Light Health District Director of Health Stephen Mansfield, among other local leaders, that the DPH and National Guard are planning on inspecting Bayview Health Care Center on Thursday.

Coleman-Mitchell also explained the state is looking to site a COVID-19 recovery facility in the region, which is a place where people can go for convalescence following discharge from acute hospital care. The idea is to have as many hospital beds available for acute care as possible "when the surge hits," Coleman-Mitchell said.

On Monday, Mansfield said a Friday conference call between the DPH and Waterford-area leaders about the viral spread in long-term care facilities fostered discussion about a variety of options, including calling in the National Guard.

Coleman-Mitchell added that Brule, Mansfield, state Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-38th District, and state Sen. Paul Formica, R-20th District, all lobbied the DPH to take action at area facilities such as Bayview, where both staff and residents have been hard hit by the virus.

As of Friday, Bayview had reported to the state 32 cases of COVID-19 and three deaths, the most among nursing homes in the region. In an online conference with family members two days earlier, Bayview officials said they had had seven deaths. The reason for the discrepancy is not clear.

"When we were on the phone with the delegation from that area — Waterford and New London — they said, 'We need something in our part of the state,' and we heard them," Coleman-Mitchell said.

Brule said Monday that his town "needs help, and we need it now."

"I think the commissioner understood my plight, Rep. McCarty's plight, Senator Formica's plight, Steve Mansfield's plight. I'm pleased that the commissioner has listened and is taking viable steps in reducing exposure in Waterford," Brule said.

McCarty, who is a member of the legislature's Public Health Committee, applauded DPH's communication with local leaders.

"DPH is coming in with the National Guard to give a good assessment of our area facilities so that we can decide on solutions going forward," McCarty said. "We've asked for any help we can possibly get, and the National Guard was one of the options we talked about."

The DPH inspected Bayview and other facilities in the area on Saturday, according to Coleman-Mitchell. The visit involved looking at infection control measures, the quality of care, the personal protective equipment on hand, staffing, the facility and the concerns of residents and families.

"This was something that we had to do for the facilities in that area because of the calls and the complaints and the concerns on behalf of the legislators and municipal leaders," Coleman-Mitchell said.

Coleman-Mitchell said she isn't sure if the DPH will bring the National Guard to other nursing homes near Bayview. Formica said that route would make the most sense.

"If you send the National Guard to one nursing home, you have to send it to others in the same situation," Formica said. "But the commissioner has been on top of this. We have a very active situation here in Bayview, Bride Brook and other facilities, and if the National Guard helps get them back on their feet, that's what we have to do."

The DPH has been in contact with municipalities, Lamont, the CDC and the National Guard since last week to plan for the continuing inspections. Harris confirmed that as of Friday, around 130 site inspections had been conducted by the DPH.

"We're calling it 'enhanced monitoring,'" Harris said. "It's something that came together pretty quickly over the last few days, with the governor saying we need to have eyes and ears on every nursing home in the state, and we need to do multiple rolling visits to show up unannounced, look at infection control procedures, look at staffing issues or needs and to assess the levels of PPE."

Harris said that the move to bring in the National Guard and the CDC is not meant to augment staffing levels at nursing homes. He mentioned a separate effort by the state to gather together a large pool of medical reserve corps who can work and volunteer in the health field. The National Guard/CDC measure is instead meant to inspect and review these facilities so that the DPH can decide on proper responses.

A National Guard Public Affairs Officer, Capt. Dave Pytlik, said that while the topic of providing guardsmen to meet staffing concerns has come up in discussions with the DPH, for now, guardsmen will be working with the DPH just to offer extra manpower for more robust inspections.

"This isn't necessarily because we think that facilities are doing something wrong," Pytlik said Monday. "I'm sure the vast majority of facilities are doing the right thing and doing the best they can with what they have. This is to make sure the most vulnerable are being taken care of appropriately, as well as the people tasked with caring for them."

As of Friday, local nursing homes reporting COVID-19 cases and deaths to the state, in addition to Bayview, included the Bride Brook Health & Rehabilitation Center in Niantic, with 24 cases and one death; Mystic Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center in Groton, with 15 confirmed cases and two deaths; Harbor Village Nursing Home in New London, with five confirmed cases and one death, and New London Subacute Nursing in Waterford with 32 confirmed cases and one death.

s.spinella@theday.com

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