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Grieving families and AARP Indiana concerned about winter’s impact on nursing homes

Spread of virus in community has impact on most vulnerable
Posted at 7:00 AM, Nov 24, 2020
and last updated 2020-11-25 02:53:37-05

INDIANAPOLIS — COVID-19 has had a devastating impact on people who live and work in nursing homes.

More than 2,573 long term care residents and 13 staff members have died with COVID-19, state records show.

Families who have lost loved ones in nursing homes want you to know each death in the total represents a loved one a family member can never talk to again.

Mary Johnson of Crawfordsville has a little piece of her mom at home—a framed craft with the word “Mom” inside.

"This is the last I made for my mom,” said Johnson. “I wanted her to have something beautiful and special at her funeral."

Mary’s mother, Martha McCullough, died May 16 at the age of 77 after developing COVID-19 at Ben Hur, a nursing home and rehabilitation facility in Crawfordsville.

“I miss her very much,” said Johnson. “It’s rough. I promised my dad I’d take care of her when he passed away, but they closed us down and I couldn’t get in.”

Most nursing homes were closed to visitors during the early months of the pandemic but began to open back up during the summer months.

Johnson was able to say goodbye to her mom in person, two days before she died with COVID-19.

“It's a memory I'll have forever,” said Johnson. “She reached up and took my hand. She knew I was there for the first time since March."

Janice Ford didn’t get that chance.

She had to say goodbye to her brother, Charles England, over the phone as he lay dying in the hospital with COVID-19.

"He told me he loved me, but it was so light I could hardly hear,” said Ford. “He was so weak by that point."

Ford said Charles England also got COVID-19 at Ben Hur and died May 22.

"It's really hard to know he didn't have to die,” said Janice Ford.

Both Ford and Johnson said while their loved ones had some health issues, they had years of life left to live.

They feel Ben Hur did not have adequate infection control procedures in place back in the spring, when the COVID-19 outbreak occurred.

Both Ford and Johnson are concerned about the impact this winter will have on nursing home residents and staff.

“It really made us mad because we couldn’t be with him at all,” said Ford. “We couldn’t even visit with him at the window. These people are somebody’s family and people do love them, and you should respect elder relatives and family.”

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Zach Cattell, president of the Indiana Health Care Association, which represents many Indiana nursing homes, says in the spring some facilities were not well equipped with N95 masks and other supplies.

"I think what we will see is that a lot of the tragic loss of life occurred early on in the pandemic,” said Cattell in a July interview with WRTV “The country was caught somewhat flatfooted. Prioritization of PPE and testing just wasn't at long term care at that point.”

It wasn’t until July that the state started testing all nursing home workers for COVID-19.

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In August, the federal government started sending antigen testing machines to Indiana nursing homes, allowing them to do more frequent testing of residents and workers.

In November, the state sent in the Indiana National Guard to help nursing homes plagued with understaffing.

Transparency was a problem too.

For months at the start of the pandemic, WRTV Investigates requested data showing where people were dying in Indiana nursing homes, but the state told us no.

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It wasn’t until July 1 that state leaders changed their minds.

“We are going to report facility-specific COVID-19 data,” said Dr. Daniel Rusyniak, the Chief Medical Officer of the Indiana Family and Social Services Administration (FSSA).

AARP Indiana was one of the groups that pushed hard for the state to release nursing home COVID-19 data, broken down by facility—information scarce at the start of the pandemic, is now readily available on the state’s website.

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“I’m definitely encouraged that we got there eventually,” said AARP state director Sarah Waddle. “That definitely empowers folks to look at the data themselves and make decisions.”

Waddle is concerned about the impact winter will have on nursing homes, plus, the Indiana National Guard is expected to leave long term care facilities on December 31.

"What happens when we don't have the National Guard in the facilities anymore or the extra bodies,” said Waddle. “I’m worried for these people.”

WRTV Investigates requested on-camera interviews with Gov. Eric Holcomb, State Health Commissioner Dr. Kris Box, and Dr. Dan Rusyniak with FSSA but no one responded to our request.

The state posted this information on its website, indicating “many facilities are allowing both indoor and outdoor visitation and are planning for families to safely visit over the holiday.”

American Senior Communities, which operates Ben Hur, tells us they are "testing 100% of residents in any facilities where there is reason to suspect a resident or staff member may be COVID-19 positive.”

ASC is also testing 100% of residents in facilities located in high-risk regions, even those with no known COVID-19 contact.

“All staff members are tested weekly, at a minimum, with staff at some facilities tested twice weekly,” read a statement from American Senior Communities. “The lab tests are in addition to Point of Care (POC) machine testing being conducted at all facilities. POC testing began in September, and we are averaging more than 60,000 tests per month.”

As nursing home deaths continue to rise, a reflection of increased community spread, Janice Ford and Mary Johnson want you to know that each death is important.

"These people are somebody's family and people do love them,” said Ford. “They have families they loved. How could you throw away somebody?"

Mary Johnson struggles with her own health issues and guilt over not being able to care for her mom.

“I physically couldn’t take care of my mom because of my own physical limitations, and that’s tough to know I couldn’t take care of her and that’s where she had to go,” said Johnson. “A lot of the people who are in nursing homes it’s because their families physically can’t take care of them.”

American Senior Communities started releasing COVID-19 data in May, broken down by nursing home, before the state started requiring it.

ASC FULL STATEMENT:

“As long term care facilities nationwide continue to feel the devastating impact of COVID-19, American Senior Communities continues to be ahead of the curve with regard to testing, data transparency and proactive communication to residents and their designated representatives. We are deeply saddened whenever a resident or staff member becomes infected, and we grieve for each resident who has passed away. As residents begin to recover, we remain steadfast in protecting and continuing to serve them.

All facilities continue to send proactive daily communications. Each resident, designated resident representative and staff member is informed daily of the total number of COVID-19 cases at the facility and the number of new cases in the last 72 hours. We make this information available online as well, ensuring family members and care partners have another means to access this data. Each facility maintains a dashboard on its webpage with comprehensive data along with important information about COVID-19 and clinical measures implemented to protect residents.

Communication is critically important, as is comprehensive testing.

Uniquely and early on, we created our own testing strike team, which includes nurses from ASC and Eskenazi Health. We are collaborating with the IU Health Lab, which is providing test kits and rapidly reading the results. This strategy enhances our ability to quickly identify positive cases and implement isolation protocols. Early detection of the virus is imperative to reducing the exposure risk to other residents and to staff.

As additional testing became available, ASC began – and continues – to test 100% of residents in any facilities where there is reason to suspect a resident or staff member may be COVID-19 positive. ASC is also testing 100% of residents in facilities located in high-risk regions, even those with no known COVID-19 contact. All staff members are tested weekly, at a minimum, with staff at some facilities tested twice weekly.

The lab tests are in addition to Point of Care (POC) machine testing being conducted at all facilities. POC testing began in September, and we are averaging more than 60,000 tests per month.”

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