October 18, 2021

Protecting the vulnerable

Nursing homes in 2 counties see spread of virus

Todd R. McAdam/managing editor

Donna Fahey speaks Wednesday with her 94-year-old mother, Grace Fahey, through the window at Cortland Park Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Cortland. Cortland County has seen several nursing home patients contract coronavirus, and at least four nursing home patients in Tompkins County have died of COVID-19.

Grace Fahey blew a kiss to her daughter, Donna, through the window at Cortland Park Nursing and Rehabilitation Center in Cortland.

Donna Fahey had stopped by Wednesday to look in on her 94-year-old mother, but could get no closer than the window facing a snow-covered lawn and phone conversation. She shivered a bit as she watched her mother, who had fallen just a few minutes before.

Fahey worries for her mother, to be sure, as she hears reports of nursing home patients contracting COVID-19 – four nursing home patients in Tompkins County have died of coronavirus in the past couple of weeks. Across the state, 4,223 nursing home patients have been confirmed among the state’s 27,404 coronavirus deaths. Another 2,783 nursing home patients were presumed to have died of coronavirus.

Cortland County has seen five people die from the virus, but the Cortland County Health Department declined to comment on whether any were nursing home patients. The state Health Department had recorded no coronavirus deaths in Cortland County nursing homes as of Tuesday.

“As previously stated, the county will not release any additional information regarding COVID-related fatalities as it may constitute an invasion of privacy,” said Eric Mulvihill, the clerk of the Legislature in an email Dec. 3. “As far as any questions related to nursing homes, the county does not regulate nursing homes or assisted-care facilities. Any questions should be directed to those facilities.”

Tompkins County Health Director Frank Kruppa said during a virtual town hall discussion Wednesday evening that he’s in routine contact with nursing homes, which are trying to prevent the virus from entering the facilities through measures like limiting visits and testing people.

“But what we know is congregate living is a perfect transmission place,” Kruppa said. “People are close together, they’re indoors often, so transmission can occur.”

The homes, he added, follow guidelines provided by the state Department of Health, which includes actions like placing people into cohorts. A cohort could include those who have tested positive being in one area of the facility while those who are negative are in another.

“I can promise they are doing everything humanly possible to try and help keep the folks and their residents safe,” he said. “Those are their people.”

Cortland Park has three or four residents with the virus, Fahey said, noting the calls she received from the nursing home. Guthrie officials said in November that it moved two of its skilled nursing unit patients to a separate isolation area at Guthrie Cortland Medical Center to treat their coronavirus.

But Fahey is also concerned for her mother’s caregivers.

“They’re always on,” she said, and they’re dressed head to toe in personal protective equipment. And they’re working harder, trying to perform tasks once provided by families, like Donna Fahey, just to brighten a loved one’s day.

There’s at least one employee who had recently contracted the virus and in June two employees had the virus.

“They’ve taken every precaution,” she said, noting she doesn’t know what else they could do to stop the spread.

She said her mom is fortunate because she doesn’t have any underlying health conditions, but does suffer from dementia.

Older adults and anyone with underlying diseases are at higher risk from the virus, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But all she can do is put her trust in the staff there, she said, stressing that the staffers are all wonderful people.

“I just want everyone to know how great these girls are,” she said.

Bonnie Heath has full trust in the employees at Groton Community Health Care, where her 94-year-old mother, Lois Snyder, is a resident.

“I know they’re being super careful,” she said, noting she hasn’t heard of any cases there. Snyder also has no underlying conditions, but does suffer from dementia, Heath said. She said the dementia, in a way, makes these times a little less traumatic.

“We were never sure she knew who we were when we visited,” she said.

Heath said when she and her sister were able to visit more frequently — Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays — the facility had them take a number of steps before they could see their mother. They had to answer and sign a page-long questionnaire, as well as provide contact information. Their temperatures were taken and visits were limited to 15 minutes in an outside area between 1 and 5 p.m.

Because their mother didn’t speak much, they brought children’s books to read to her.

Now if they want to visit, Heath said she has to bring paperwork showing she had a negative COVID test beforehand.

“Insurance doesn’t cover that,” she said.

But she understands why the facility is doing it. “It’s just to protect them,” she said.

Instead, she calls weekly to ask the staff how her mother is doing.

In November, Dr. Joseph A. Scopelliti, CEO of Guthrie in Sayre, Pa., which operates the 162-bed hospital and adjacent 80-bed nursing home and rehabilitation center in Cortland, said Guthrie Cortland cleared its rehabilitation unit and moved those patients to other parts of the nursing home.

The move was made to allow COVID-19 patients to be isolated in the rehabilitation unit, which has a negative air pressure space that helps prevent the spread of viruses.

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Managing Editor Todd R. McAdam contributed to this report.