‘Heartbreaking’ report shows virus ravaging NY nursing homes

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — New York, by far the nation’s leader in coronavirus nursing home deaths, released details Friday on outbreaks in individual facilities after weeks of refusing, revealing one home in Brooklyn where 55 people died and four others with at least 40 deaths.

“Every death is heartbreaking,” said Dr. Roy Goldberg, medical director at Kings Harbor Multicare Center, a 720-bed home in the Bronx which reported 45 fatalities. “These have been surreal times.”

The state’s accounting of multiple deaths at 68 nursing homes was based on a survey and is substantially incomplete. It accounted for less than half of the 2,690 nursing home deaths that have been reported in the state. It also didn’t include people who got sick in nursing homes, but then died at hospitals.

But it was the first time the state provided any information about homes that, according to an Associated Press tally, account for nearly 40% of the nation’s 6,912 deaths in such facilities

At the top of the list with 55 deaths was Cobble Hill Health Center, a 300-bed facility in a 19th-century former hospital in a tony section of Brooklyn.

Four ambulances arrived within an hour at the facility Friday, underscoring the ongoing crisis. Police showed up to assist with the removal of bodies, including one that was wheeled out the front door.

The Cobble Hill home said in a statement that the deaths it reported were “based on the possibility of COVID-19 being a factor,” adding testing in nursing homes remains “extremely difficult to obtain.”

“Although we’ve had an increase in deaths during the past few weeks, we have not been able to confirm that the deaths are specifically related to COVID-19,” the statement said.

A total of 19 homes in New York’s report listed 20 deaths or more.

The survey’s release came a day after New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration reversed course and promised transparency about the worst outbreaks, after previously saying residents at the hardest-hit homes deserved privacy. Few states have released such information.

Cuomo did not respond directly when asked at his daily coronavirus briefing why his administration had not alerted the public about the outbreaks sooner.

“We’ve been talking about nursing homes every day for the past 30 days,” Cuomo said. “We’ve said 157 times the most vulnerable population are seniors, the most vulnerable places are nursing homes. … I think we’ve been talking about it all along.”

The state’s list omitted homes with fewer than five deaths.

Connecticut released a similar list Thursday, reporting that eight nursing homes had at least 10 residents die. In Connecticut, nursing home residents account for 375 of the state’s 971 virus deaths.

Officials at several of the nursing homes on the list said they were doing their best, and attributed the high number of deaths to the fragility of their patients and difficulty in keeping the virus out, rather than substandard care.

“We have had our share of sadness,” Lina Scacco, an assistant vice president at Parker Jewish Institute for Health Care and Rehabilitation in New Hyde Park, where 38 people have died. “We’re all grieving here.”

Scacco said the facility, whose residents include war veterans and Holocaust survivors was ravaged despite having infection control practices that exceed CDC and health department regulations and guidelines.

Now, she said, they’re planning virtual memorials for residents who’ve died and grief counseling for staff members.

“This has been devastating to our families,” Scacco said.

Stephen Hanse, president and CEO of the New York State Health Facilities Association and the New York State Center for Assisted Living, said the figures reflect the fact that those facilities are dealing with extremely vulnerable patients.

“Outbreaks are not the result of inattentiveness or a shortcoming in our facilities,” he wrote in a statement. “The very nature of long-term care is a high touch environment where social distancing is not an option. Staff are helping residents with bathing, dressing, eating and other personal daily needs.”

He also blamed the state health department for worsening the situation by barring nursing homes from denying admission to patients with COVID-19 if they were medically stable.

Nursing homes have been known since the earliest days of the outbreak as a likely trouble spot. A home in Washington state lost 43 residents early in the virus’s spread into the country.

Italy, which was hit before the U.S., is also in the midst of a nursing home crisis, with health officials there estimating Friday that thousands of patients there have been killed by the virus.

Yet even with that early warning, many nursing homes remained without adequate supplies of personal protective equipment. Testing for residents and staff remains spotty, at best.

Federal officials in mid-March banned visitors, halted group activities and ordered mandatory screening of workers for respiratory symptoms, but by then the virus had quietly spread widely.

Kings Harbor’s medical director, Goldberg, said staff members there created two dedicated COVID-19 units to treat infected patients and followed “every department of health and CDC recommendation and regulation.”

“Obtaining PPE has always been a struggle,” he added, “but we’ve always stayed one step ahead.”

New York state’s health commissioner, Howard Zucker, said the state is providing enough personal protective equipment for nursing homes and helping with staffing.

“We’re working with each individual nursing home to address that. We contact them and if there’s a need for PPE … we have stockpiles.”

Many nursing home administrators also previously declined to release information, leading Cuomo to say this week that the state would begin requiring homes to inform patients and their families within 24 hours if a resident got the virus or died.

Chris Laxton, executive director of the The Society for Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine, applauded the state for releasing the data. But he said facilities still desperately need the state’s help.

“We continue to be in urgent need of PPE, especially gowns, test kits, and surge staff, to limit staff from traveling between buildings and risking additional spread,′ Laxton said.

Some nursing homes have disclosed information voluntarily that differed from the numbers put out by the state Friday.

The state survey listed 10 deaths at the Montgomery Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, about 50 miles north of New York City, but facility Vice President Vincent Maniscalco said 21 residents have died recently. Eight of those patients, he said, had symptoms consistent with the virus but died prior to being tested.

“It’s been a very trying time for the staff, to lose residents they care for day in and day out,” Maniscalco said.

Outbreaks killed 46 at a nursing home in suburban Richmond, Virginia, and 22 at a home in central Indiana. County officials in northern New Jersey said Thursday that at least 26 patients had died at a nursing home in Andover.

An Associated Press report found infections were continuing to find their way into nursing homes because screening staff for a fever or questioning them about symptoms didn’t catch people who were infected but asymptomatic.