‘It's Definitely Tense Right Now': Nursing Homes Emerge as Coronavirus Hot Spots

Close to 60 percent of all COVID-19 deaths in Massachusetts have occurred in long-term care facilities

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Nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have emerged as tragic hot spots in the coronavirus pandemic.

The state of Massachusetts is taking steps to better protect vulnerable nursing home residents, but some advocates and families tell the NBC10 Boston Investigators they worry the new measures aren’t enough.

“It's a very sad and frustrating experience,” said Peter Nelson, whose mother, Clara, was diagnosed with COVID-19 while staying at a skilled nursing facility in Worcester. “It makes us all very sad.”

Nelson says staff at the Beaumont Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Center are kind and loving to his mom. But he was upset when he learned of the state’s plan to move residents to a sister nursing home and convert the facility into a COVID-19 treatment site.

Clara Nelson ultimately had to stay put, however, because several residents on her floor tested positive for COVID-19. Days later, so did she.

The additional $130 million will be available to nursing homes in Massachusetts starting May 1, Gov. Charlie Baker announces in a COVID-19 update.

“This is everybody’s mom, and that should be a priority … ” he said, discussing the challenges facing nursing homes across the state. “[They should] at least make sure that they are protected, they get the testing and the services and the attention they need, and that they have adequate care.”

Responding to questions from NBC10, Beaumont said it follows public health protocols, and will soon conclude testing on all residents, now that testing is more widely available. The facility has offered testing to staff as well, and is working to get those tests scheduled, it said.

Universal testing is a key feature in the state’s new plan to safeguard nursing homes.

More than 50% of people dying from COVID-19 in Massachusetts were at nursing homes.

“We highly, highly recommend – in fact, we’re being kind of pushy – that we want them to test everybody,” Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said Tuesday, describing a new initiative announced this week.

Close to 60 percent of all COVID-19 deaths in Massachusetts have occurred in long-term care facilities, according to data released Thursday by the Department of Public Health. More than 12,100 residents and health care workers have contracted the disease in long-term care settings, the data shows.

State officials say the crisis has been driven in part by a lack of sophistication around infection control and difficulty grouping residents together to decrease transmission. Nursing homes have also experienced “call out” rates among staff in the range of 20 percent to 40 percent, according to the state.

Deadly clusters of COVID-19 have taken a toll at nursing homes and long-term care facilities across the country.

Health officials on Monday announced $130 million in additional funding to help nursing homes respond to the emergency over the next two months. To be eligible for the money, facilities must pass new infection control standards and test all staff and residents.

The state will also deploy 120 nurses and certified nursing assistants to help facilities struggling with outbreaks.

Among those reporting a spate of infections is Masconomet Healthcare Center in Topsfield. Town officials announced last week that a dozen residents of the facility had died from COVID-19, and that more than 70 residents and staff were infected.

Three employees who spoke to the NBC10 Boston Investigators voiced concerns about the situation.

“You haven’t gotten any kind of email or communication about getting staff tested?” NBC10’s Ally Donnelly asked one of the workers, who asked not to be identified for fear of repercussions at work.

“No,” the employee said. “We were told testing would not be provided to employees, and we were pretty disheartened by that.”

Masconomet Healthcare Center didn’t immediately respond to calls and emails from NBC10 this week. In an earlier statement, its compliance officer said the nursing home has been following, and will continue to follow, public health guidelines concerning appropriate testing and protection and quarantine of employees and residents.

Carolyn Villers, executive director of the Mass Senior Action Council, a nonprofit that advocates for seniors, said the pandemic has exposed long-standing problems with the country’s model for long-term care. Many facilities have short staffing and pay low wages, which leads to turnover among employees, she said.

“What we’ve witnessed in nursing homes – it’s hard to even find a word to describe it – tragic or horrific,” she said. “And I think it's left a lot of people in fear.”

Villers said many nursing homes still don’t have sufficient access to personal protective equipment, which puts both workers and residents at risk. The state should also provide more training for workers, she said.

“Some nursing facilities may have better systems in place, and others may be struggling with what are the right protocols that they need in place,” she said.

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