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Area nursing homes COVID-free as staff testing continues

Cases of COVID-19 among residents of Connecticut nursing homes and assisted living facilities have slowed considerably in recent weeks, but it could be just the eye of the storm.

"We know there's potential for a second wave," Mairead Painter, the state long term care ombudsman, told viewers of a Facebook Live session on July 1. "We see what's happening in other states. I am very concerned and want to make sure the people in our nursing homes have the highest level of care."

The long term care ombudsman and Connecticut AARP were disappointed when, on June 17, Gov. Ned Lamont scaled back an executive order requiring weekly testing of nursing home and assisted living staff. Citing new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Lamont said the testing could cease after 14 consecutive days without a positive case and resume if any staff member or resident tests positive.

"We want a more rigorous testing policy," said Nora Duncan, state director for Connecticut AARP, by phone Tuesday.

The most recent data available from the Department of Public Health indicated Connecticut had 17,747 nursing home residents and 7,455 people living in assisted-living facilities.

The ombusdman's office and AARP are lobbying state legislators to address during their anticipated special session later this month a bill allowing nursing home residents the option of installing video cameras or other recording devices that would allow family members or caretakers to monitor them remotely. With visitation restricted to virtual communication, window visits and, more recently, outdoor visits, advocates say the cameras, opposed by some who cite privacy concerns, are more important than ever.

"I feel very strongly that residents need to have access to cameras," Painter said during the Facebook meeting. "I will be advocating for that. I don't think we should be deciding for residents whether they feel it's a privacy issue or not."

On the national level, AARP is calling for Congress to take immediate action to protect nursing home residents by ensuring adequate levels of personal protective equipment for staff, mandatory testing and virtual visitation policies and national rejection of civil or legal immunity that was granted to many nursing home operators, including those in Connecticut, during the pandemic.

Almost 70% of Connecticut's 3,448 COVID-related deaths occurred in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, according to data reported by the state Department of Public Health. As of mid-June, before the state stopped publishing cumulative data, 2,648 nursing home residents had died from complications of the virus. As of July 1, 370 residents of assisted living facilities had died from confirmed or suspected cases of COVID-19.

In southeastern Connecticut, nursing homes in East Lyme, Groton, New London, Stonington and Waterford reported no new cases of COVID-19 among residents for the week ending June 30. Testing of nursing home staff was underway at the facilities during the same week, and only one positive case of a staff member was reported in southeastern Connecticut, at the Greentree Manor Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Waterford.

Last month, Gov. Ned Lamont announced the state would be soliciting bids for an independent, third-party review of the nursing home and assisted living facilities' performance during the pandemic, with results being reported as soon as mid-August.

"Our state took proactive and innovative steps to address the outbreak in our long-term care facilities, but we must take steps to better understand how prepared the system was, and then review the steps that were taken once the virus was clearly present across the state," Lamont said. "As we prepare for the possibility of a second wave, we must be proactive in analyzing what occurred, what needs to be improved, and how we can ensure the quality and safety of facilities that some of our most vulnerable residents call home."

On Tuesday, The Day contacted operators of two area nursing homes that struggled to contain the virus during the height of the pandemic that are now COVID-free to ask about preparations for a potential second wave of the virus.

Bayview Health Care in Waterford, had reported 40 cases of COVID-19 and seven deaths, and Bride Brook Health & Rehabilitation Center in Niantic had 100 cases of COVID-19 and 14 deaths.

Timothy Brown, a spokesman for Athena Health Care Systems, which owns 26 longterm care facilities in Connecticut, including Bayview, issued a statement via email.  

"We continue to work diligently with our existing vendors, new vendors and advocating with the state, to secure personal protection equipment and ensure that every member of our team has the protection they deserve," Brown said in the email. "As a result of our efforts, they do. While we have adequate PPE and our center is currently COVID-free, we continue to work to secure additional PPE in the anticipation of a second surge of COVID in our state. We strongly support the state's initiative for testing all nursing home residents and staff, as they are on the front lines of this pandemic. We have conducted several rounds of testing for all Bayview residents and continue to be free of COVID-19 cases. Additionally, we are continuing to provide testing of our staff. An additional round of testing for all staff and residents will occur next week. The entire Bayview team appreciates the support from our residents, their families and our community over the past few months of this pandemic."

Lauren Digeronimo, a spokeswoman for Bride Brook owner Sava Senior Care, said in an email that the facility has sufficient personal protective equipment, continues to adhere to CDC guidance for precautionary measures and is following state guidance in restricting visits to outdoors. Before every shift, staff are screened for fever and respiratory illness, and the facility has "put in place a number of support mechanism to help them during this time," according to the email.  

The facility screens outside essential health care professionals prior to entering the facility as well, according to Digeronimo.



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