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Local leaders criticize state for lack of communication about COVID-19 in nursing homes

At last week's Southeastern Connecticut Council of Governments meeting, Waterford First Selectman Rob Brule pleaded for better communication between the state Department of Public Health (DPH) and municipalities regarding the COVID-19 crisis in nursing homes.

With the death toll in nursing homes more than 20 in Waterford and East Lyme combined, Brule said he has heard from concerned family members who seemingly have no one to talk to, no one to tell them, “This is what the plan is to ensure that residents are safe in these long-term care facilities.”

During the meeting, Brule said he had not heard from the governor’s office and had asked Ledge Light Health District Director Steve Mansfield for a number to contact state officials. He said Sen. Paul Formica, R-20th District, and state Reps. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, and Holly Cheeseman, R-East Lyme, have been helping as much as possible.

Mansfield said he sent a formal email to the Department of Public Health asking specifically what municipal leaders should do and whom they should call to get information regarding long-term care facilities. He said so far there has been no response, but that he would follow up with a local contact at DPH to see “if we can open those lines of communication.”

As of Sunday, New London (136), East Lyme (142), Waterford (155) and Montville (252) had the highest number of COVID-19 cases in New London County due to their nursing homes and, in the case of Montville, the Corrigan-Radgowski Correctional Center, where 152 out of 962 inmates have tested positive.

A lack of back-and-forth with the state is related to Gov. Ned Lamont’s dismissal of Public Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell this month, according to Brule and other municipal leaders.  

They say that channels that were open have at least temporarily closed, and projects in the works have been put on pause.

“When Coleman-Mitchell was let go, all of the pending conference calls and issues that were going on fell by the wayside,” Brule said. “I just want answers, and I want people to call and email me back, to tell me who can I talk to about this. We’re getting zero information and communication.”

Municipalities served by the Ledge Light Health District and the CEOs of area long-term care facilities say they are without a direct contact at the governor’s office or the state health department. In the course of trying to change that, Mansfield raised a peculiar problem.

“At the beginning of the pandemic I asked Av Harris, director of communications at DPH, where calls about long-term care should go, and he said ‘just send them to my office,’” Mansfield said. “I’m not sure why the director of the communications would be getting those questions or complaints.”

Harris acknowledged this role.

“I often serve as the point person of contact for municipal CEOs and I would be happy to take any calls from individuals or officials who do not feel like their calls or emails are being returned,” Harris wrote in an email.

Harris defended the state’s communication, noting that the DPH and the governor’s office have had numerous conversations with legislators, local officials and health directors in the region about COVID-19’s impact on nursing homes as well as testing, mitigation strategy and PPE availability, among other topics.

“Our Facility Licensing and Investigation Team has also had several detailed updates addressing both COVID-19 recovery facilities potentially opening in the region and concerns for infection control and staffing at skilled nursing facilities,” Harris wrote.

Still, Brule is not convinced the state has a proper plan to slow the spread and reduce deaths in nursing homes.

“What is the next step? Do we put the white flag up and say, ‘There’s not a whole lot we can do? Once (the virus) gets in, it’s in?’” Brule asked. “That’s not good enough for me. We need to do what we can to protect those less fortunate and more vulnerable.”

As Mansfield pointed out, once COVID-19 enters a facility, it’s difficult to stop it from wreaking havoc. He said that CEOs are justifiably upset about the number of cases and deaths in long-term care facilities but that these don’t necessarily have to do with deficient control procedures.

Take East Lyme, where the Bride Brook Health & Rehabilitation Center in Niantic was inspected by state health officials and members of the National Guard four times between April 21 and May 6, receiving no citations for its infection control procedures.

Bride Brook passed the inspections and yet was devastated by the novel coronavirus, The Day reported on May 22. According to its latest update, Bride Brook has had 102 residents and 30 staff members who have tested positive from COVID-19, and 76 residents have recovered from the virus at the center.

East Lyme First Selectman Mark Nickerson agreed with Brule: The state could be paying more attention to the region’s nursing homes.

“Has the communication been stellar? No,” Nickerson said. “Communication could’ve been smoother. I think Ledge Light Health District was desperate to get information out of the Department of Public Health. Our health district wasn’t able to get us the information because they couldn’t get the information. There was definitely a breakdown in communication.”

Nickerson wondered why the state can’t be quicker with alerting towns to new cases in nursing homes.

“The only person in town I have to rely on when it comes to the pandemic is Steve Mansfield, and he needs to have the information as quickly as possible,” Nickerson said. “He was never given that opportunity.”

Brule and Mansfield were pleased when, after repeated inquiries, in April, the state sent in the National Guard to inspect nursing homes throughout the state, including those in Waterford. Brule has been lobbying for the state to address the effects of COVID-19 on the region’s nursing homes for months now.

Deidre Gifford, the state commissioner of social services, is the interim DPH commissioner. She has a master of public health degree in epidemiology. But, Brule said, her appointment further complicates channels of communication for an already overwhelmed DPH. He doesn’t know whether to contact her or to work with others in the DPH.

Mansfield is happy with one part of the state’s response. Last week, he along with five other local directors of health had their first meeting as a subcommittee meant to provide input into reopening guidelines. He said now, local health districts have a chance to review the orders coming out of the governor’s office about the reopening and provide input, something that was missing in the beginning of the pandemic.

“We local health directors wanted representation on the reopening committee moving forward,” Mansfield said. “We’re in phase two. Up until this week, directors of health weren't included in those committees statewide, which was disappointing because we’re the folks with boots on the ground and relationships with these regulated entities.”

Montville Mayor Ron McDaniel did not criticize the state’s communication, but he did comment on the data coming from Corrigan.

“It is difficult to separate Corrigan cases from the overall number reported due to the way data is reported,” McDaniel wrote in an email. “We rely on Uncas Health staff who have been tremendously helpful keeping our records as accurate as possible. When you try to cull data from too many disparate reporting sources, it gets frustrating, as they don’t match up.”

Montville is “praying for everyone in [Corrigan], particularly the staff locked in there and currently being exposed,” McDaniel wrote.

McCarty recognized the difficulties of the moment.

“They care about every nursing home in the state,” McCarty said of the DPH. “I don’t know what else we can do. New London Rehab for example, we had them in there four times. In a perfect world, we would’ve been prepared. Even then, we don’t always know how the virus is brought in.”

Day Staff Writer Kimberly Drelich contributed to this report.

s.spinella@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects who Steve Mansfield sent a formal email to asking what municipal leaders should do and whom they should call to get information regarding long-term care facilities.

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