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Some families pull loved ones from nursing homes as deaths, cases rise

Two Johnson County facilities each have 32 deaths
Violet Benefield.JPG
Posted at 3:07 PM, May 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-26 19:50:40-04

JOHNSON COUNTY — The number of people who have died from COVID-19 has more than doubled in the past three weeks in Indiana, with 876 deaths now reported at long term care facilities.

COVID-19 deaths at long term care facilities make up nearly half of all COVID-19 deaths in Indiana.

NEW NUMBERS EMERGE

The Indiana State Department of Health has refused to provide Call 6 Investigates with data showing where nursing home residents have died and where the outbreaks are, citing “privacy” concerns.

However, many county health departments have released the information anyway as well as facility operators like American Senior Communities.

Call 6 Investigates used that information to create a searchable database of nursing home cases and deaths.

Two facilities in Central Indiana have had the most deaths—Greenwood Meadows and Greenwood Healthcare Center—with 32 deaths at each nursing home.

LOVED ONES CONCERNED — “I only have one mother.”

Gloria Benefield’s mother Violet developed COVID-19 while living at Greenwood Meadows, a nursing home facility in Johnson County.

Violet is now negative for COVID-19, but she’s still not feeling well, said her daughter.

“She has a sore throat and an ear infection and they're not addressing that," said Gloria Benefield.

Gloria plans to remove her mom from Greenwood Meadows and move Violet in with her.

“I only have one mother and she’s stood by me and done things for me and I’m going to take care of her with love and care,” said Gloria. “I’ve bought her a bed and everything else. She doesn’t get the care she’s supposed to be getting.”

Gloria is concerned her mom has been living at a facility with one of the highest death tolls at a long term care facility in Central Indiana.

“She survived because she has a healthy heart and lungs,” said Gloria.

As of numbers reported on May 25, the facility has had 32 deaths of residents and employees, 50 active cases, and 26 residents have recovered.

“It’s not right,” said Gloria. “Not just for my mother, but for any of those patients to have died. They could have done something.”

STATE’S LARGEST PROVIDER EXPLAINS NUMBERS

Greenwood Meadows is operated by American Senior Communities, the state's largest provider of nursing home and senior care facilities, started posting numbers this month on each facility’s website about COVID-19 cases and deaths.

PREVIOUS | Largest nursing home provider changes tune on death and case information

ASC posted this video to YouTube showing Greenwood Meadows staff, including one staffer who emphasized the facility has been communicating daily with residents and their families.

"I believe this daily communication has not only created new relationships and has helped our families have better peace of mind at home knowing their loved one is being continuously cared for,” said Taylor Billerman,
Marketing and Admissions Director at Greenwood Meadows.

American Senior Communities and its partner, Health and Hospital Corporation, released the following statement to RTV6 explaining why their facilities have experienced a higher number of deaths.

“This pandemic has brought grief, loss and tremendous sadness to thousands of families across the country. Residents of nursing homes have been the hardest hit, and we cannot express the level of devastation felt by each and every passing. We can, however, commit to doing everything in our power to protect as many people as possible, and that’s what we’re doing.

There are four key reasons that the number of deaths is currently higher in HHC’s facilities.

  • 1. We are testing vastly more residents than other operators. To date, we have administered more than 6,000 tests. We are testing 100% of the residents in any facility where there is reason to suspect a resident or staff member may be COVID-19 positive. We have also tested 100% of all residents in our nursing facilities in Marion County and in other hot spots around the state, including those facilities with no known cases of COVID-19.

We believe our broad testing is detecting the virus in more residents and, consequently, more of our resident deaths are being identified as COVID-19-related. Epidemiologists have estimated that many people, not just nursing home residents, in our country have died of COVID-19 but were untested and so those deaths have not been associated with COVID-19.

During this pandemic, HHC is partnering with the community to address the heightened needs of residents, families and staff. Uniquely and early on, we created our own testing strike team, which includes nurses from HHC’s long term care managing partner, American Senior Communities (ASC), and Eskenazi Health.

We are collaborating with the IU Health Lab, which is providing test kits and rapidly reading the results. Early detection of the virus is imperative to reducing the exposure risk to other residents and to staff. This strategy enhances our ability to quickly identify positive cases and implement isolation protocols.

  • 2. HHC operates a disproportionately large number of nursing homes in urban areas, where the coronavirus is most concentrated. In Marion County we own 26% of the nursing homes and, based on our best estimates, we care for 29% of the nursing home residents in the county. We know that 30% of Indiana’s COVID-19 cases are in Marion County.
  • 3. As part of HHC’s mission, the organization has always been committed to caring for sicker, more complex residents with greater comorbidities.
  • 4. HHC cares for large numbers of residents who suffer from Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Memory care residents live in a more homelike atmosphere and are more difficult to keep separate. Residents with these illnesses are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19.”

Since the start of this pandemic, HHC and ASC have invested more than $13 million in hiring and retaining staff and have hired more than 740 new staff members to care for residents, said HHC spokesperson Curt Brantingham.

“We have also assigned additional respiratory therapists to work in 15 of our COVID-19 positive facilities,” said Brantingham in an emailed statement to RTV6. “We estimate that by the end of May, we will have invested $14.4 million in our COVID-19 response at our nursing homes.”

ANOTHER JOHNSON CO. FACILITY ALSO HIT HARD

At least 32 people have died at another Johnson County facility— Greenwood Healthcare Center.

A spokesperson for their operator, CommuniCare, says they have higher numbers in part because they have a ventilator unit which brings in patients with respiratory problems.

“I think when you focus on the numbers, you really miss the big picture,” said CommuniCare spokesperson Fred Strathmann. “It's true that the Greenwood facility has had those numbers of fatalities. Our thinking is the vent unit and certainly the age and the underlying health condition of the population there plays a role."

Stratmann emphasized most patients are recovering.

“We had a single day high earlier May of 115 residents who had been COVID positive and a great many of them had no symptoms whatsoever,” said Stratmann. “Now we're down to about 25 residents who are in isolation. That tells the story that people are recovering."

Stratmann also provided the following statement to RTV6 on behalf of CommuniCare and Greenwood Healthcare Center:

“We are being proactive and aggressive in our treatment of COVID residents:

  1. All clinically appropriate residents are being treated with anti-coagulent medication. This will reduce the risk of blood clots and strokes, which have been shown to be a factor in COVID fatalities.
  2. We have instituted a program of “proning,” which is strategically positioning residents to reduce the buildup of fluid in lung tissue and reduce the risk of Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome, which has also been a factor in COVID fatalities.
  3. We are also treating residents with Amino Acid supplements, which have been shown to be helpful in treating COVID.”

HEALTH DEPARTMENT RESPONSE

The Johnson County Health Department is one of several health departments who has actively been sharing nursing home death and case information, broken down by facility, even though the state still refuses to share that information.

Data compiled by Call 6 Investigates show two of the facilities with the highest death tolls in Central Indiana are located in Johnson County.

We reached out to Betsy Swearingen, director of the Johnson County Health Department, pointed out that Greenwood Healthcare accepts COVID-19 positive patients.

“The two facilities are large and treat the sickest elderly patients in Johnson County,” said Swearingen. “Many of these patients are in Hospice and have chosen to live their last days in these facilities. The facilities are doing their best to treat the most vulnerable target of COVID and that is our elderly population with underlying health problems.”

NURSING HOME INDUSTRY CAUTIONS AGAINST JUDGEMENTS

The Indiana Health Care Association and the Indiana Center for Assisted Living is the state’s largest trade association representing skilled nursing and assisted living communities, representing 450 skilled nursing and
assisted living properties in Indiana.

President Zachary Cattell said once the federal government releases the numbers, the public needs to take them with a grain of salt.

COVID-19 testing of nursing home residents and employees has been hit or miss across the state.

"If we were able to test everybody at the same time, or relatively at the same time, and do so consistently overtime that data would be more reliable and more valuable to the public and to public health officials,” said Cattell. “But that's not where we're at right now."

Cattell said the public needs to keep in mind the elderly are more susceptible to the virus, especially if they’re living in congregate settings.

Just because a nursing home or assisted living facility has a high number of cases or deaths does not mean the facility has done anything wrong, said Cattell.

"With regard to the perception that nursing facilities have done something wrong, because the virus attacks elderly and vulnerable populations more than others, I think is a wrong perception to have," said Cattell.

The trade association is working on gather its own data including recoveries.

“We can learn from the data and learn from best practices and make sure we have all the tools to attack this if a vaccine is not available for some period of time,” said Cattell.

WHAT YOU CAN DO

If your family's nursing home is not providing the information at your request, you can report it to familyoutreach@isdh.in.gov.

Call 6 Investigates is also tracking nursing home cases in Indiana, and we want to continue to add to that list.

If you’re concerned about a loved one in a nursing home facility, or your family member died because of COVID-19 at a long term care facility, you can contact kara.kenney@wrtv.com.