Jack Fisher fears for his mother’s life.
The 95-year-old woman resides at Milton Nursing & Rehabilitation Center. Fisher and others with loved ones at the facility learned by letter from its lead administrator this week that the nursing center could be called to admit new or returning residents who are discharged from hospitals and recovering from COVID-19.
Early case studies found people age 65 and older are most susceptible to severe symptoms, hospitalization and death, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“This is the absolute worst place you could ever take anybody you’d even suspect has the coronavirus,” Fisher said.
Milton Nursing isn’t alone.
The Pennsylvania Department of Health mandates that nursing facilities and other long-term care facilities accept “stable patients who have had the COVID-19 virus,” according to interim guidelines.
“Many of Pennsylvania’s nursing homes provide excellent care to residents, and have teams that address infection control the same as hospitals do,” Health Department Press Secretary Nate Wardle said.
“Our goal, of course, is that through people staying home and through flattening the curve, that our hospitals can absorb all COVID-19 patients without us needing to discharge those who are still sick, but only time will tell on that,” Wardle said.
Strict droplet precautions and patient segregation are among the steps Milton Nursing would take to protect uninfected residents and prevent the spread of COVID-19, according to the letter from Gary Plasschaert, the head administrator at the Milton facility.
“We are working with hospitals to review the resident types we would be asked to accept. Although this is a tough decision, I am confident that we have infection control practices that have been guided by the CDC and Dept. of Health to handle Covid positive residents and our current residents,” Plasschaert said in the letter.
Plasschaert wrote that the facility purchased and received donated protective gear for employees. He offered families help should they choose to seek a facility transfer if a COVID-19 patient joins the nursing home.
The U.S. became the first country to surpass 100,000 cases on Friday and now leads the world in confirmed cases of the disease. That figures is likely far greater, experts believe, since those with mild symptoms aren’t prioritized for tests and the disease can be carried unknown in people who aren’t ill.
Health care experts the world over are attempting to maximize space and bed capacity as the virus continues its exponential spread in the United States and elsewhere.
Nursing facilities are one option to keep hospitals from over-crowding. Even hotels are under consideration. Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said hotel owners have volunteered use of the now-dormant buildings to host patients who are nearing full recovery and discharge home.
In Pennsylvania, most hospitalized patients actually fall into the 25-49 age-group; however, the majority of the 22 deaths reported so far have been patients age 65 or older, according to the Health Department.
Six residents of a Long Island nursing facility died following an outbreak. In Washington, the illness spread from a health care worker to the nursing home population where 23 residents, or nearly 30 percent of the facility, had the illness. Six nursing homes are being monitored in New Orleans for clusters of the coronavirus. At least 43 long-term care facilities in New Jersey had coronavirus cases, with one facility transferring its entire patient population — all 96 of whom were confirmed or presumed positive.
Fisher didn’t criticize staff at Milton Nursing but referenced criticisms found within the long-term nursing industry: inadequate levels of staffing and low wages. He questioned whether the industry is fit to handle this sudden pandemic and potentially fatal disease.
“How in the world are they ever going to increase staffing at Milton Nursing to handle any influx of additional patients, especially if they have the coronavirus?” Fisher asked.
State Rep. Lynda Schlegel Culver, R-108, spoke with Fisher herself. When she was through, she shared his concerns and her own with the office of Gov. Tom Wolf.
Culver recognized the need to maximize space in the continuing care of COVID-19 patients, a patient-base growing daily. She also acknowledged that the health of nursing home patients could be at risk.
“We are in absolutely new territory. With every decision made there’s going to be unintended consequences that we’re not prepared for,” Culver said. “I’m glad (Fisher) brought it to our attention. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have known.”
Brian Powers of Bedrock Care, the corporate owner of Milton Nursing, offered a prepared statement and a copy of the state’s nursing facility interim guidelines in response to questions about the issue.
“We are following guidance from president of the United States through the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) and our governor of Pennsylvania via the PA Department of Health in order to support our health systems in any way possible in minimizing unnecessary burdens on an already overly taxed heath systems,” the statement read.
Grandview Nursing Home in Danville and RiverWoods in Lewisburg each declined comment while administrators at Nottingham Village in Northumberland and Buffalo Valley Lutheran Village in Lewisburg did not return messages seeking comment.