Albany

State’s tally of employee COVID-19 infections inaccurate for some nursing homes

State report finding employees caused high COVID-19 death toll was released around same time
Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently

Categories: Fulton Montgomery Schoharie, News, Saratoga County, Schenectady County

ALBANY — A Department of Health tally of COVID-infected employees at nursing homes statewide appears to have some significant inaccuracies.

The state DOH last week issued a report indicating that these employees were infected in great number and were likely the unwitting source of infections that have killed so many New York nursing home residents during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Daily Gazette contacted several Capital Region nursing homes and found the state’s count of employees testing positive for the virus to be accurate at some facilities, slightly off at others, and wildly inaccurate at a few.

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The most glaring discrepancy was for the   & Nursing Center in Colonie, where the state said 128 employees tested positive in June. Albany County, which owns and operates the facility, said zero employees tested positive in June.

The DOH confirmed that the numbers listed are what they appear to be — a total number of employees testing positive in the period listed — but did not respond to a followup question about the accuracy of the Shaker Place numbers.

DOH also did not explain the data formating that led another Capital Region facility to have three positive tests listed from May 1 to 31 and seven positive tests from May 20 to 31.

Shaker Place Executive Director Larry Slatky said via email: “Shaker Place, like nearly every other nursing home across the country, was impacted by COVID-19. However the number of positive test results for employees as listed on the State Department of Health website are completely inaccurate and we seriously question their process of data collection.”

Here are the total number of infected employees for a sample of Capital Region nursing homes from March 1 through June 26:

  • Baptist Health Center: 20 (state tally), 22 (administrators’ tally);
  • Daughters of Sarah: 27 (state), 24 (admin);
  • Fulton Center for Rehabilitation and Healthcare: 49 (state), 31 (admin);
  • Glendale Home: 7 (state), approximately 7 (admin);
  • Pathways Nursing & Rehabilitation Center: 57 (state), 4 (admin);
  • Schenectady Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing: 19 (state), 13 (admin);
  • Shaker Place: 177 (state), 48 (admin);
  • Van Rensselaer Manor: 7 (state), 5 (admin);
  • Wesley Health Care Center: 1 (state), 1 (admin).

The state’s list indicates that the numbers listed are self-reported by the facilities.

“I have no idea where this came from,” said Jeff Ruso, administrator of Pathways, a 110-bed facility in Niskayuna. The state-reported 53 positive tests in June is totally off-base, he said. The actual number was zero.

“The last positive case we had here was just before Memorial Day,” Ruso said.

The reported surge in employee infections in June at Shaker Place and Pathways runs counter to the trend that month statewide, when infections in the general population were waning. By June 1, the state had already imposed a new set of guidelines and protocols on nursing homes to reduce infections. Slatky said Shaker Place was in compliance at that point.

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What’s more, the central point of last week’s state report on nursing home deaths — that infected employees spread the COVID virus among residents — would seem completely counter to the situation at Shaker and Pathways, if they had such rampant sickness among their staff.

Pathways has had zero resident infections. Shaker has had resident infections and deaths but not in June.

“If the suggestion is that the deaths in nursing homes are because of staff, and I have 53, even if it was true, it didn’t result in any patient harm,” Ruso observed.

No one who spoke to The Gazette for this story could guess at the cause of the inaccuracies in the state tally of infected nursing home employees.

But no one suggested the numbers were inflated to better prove the point of the state DOH report: that infected employees (and possibly visitors) were the primary cause of infection for more than 6,000 New York nursing home residents who’ve died of COVID during the pandemic.

The report asserts the employees mostly spread the virus unwittingly, after they were infected but before they started showing symptoms.

The report also attempts to specifically discredit a harsh criticism of Gov. Andrew Cuomo — that his Department of Health’s March 25 directive that nursing homes not deny admission to infected elderly residents caused the nursing home death toll to soar.

That theory has become a rallying point for Republicans at the state and federal level.

State Sen. Daphne Jordan, R-Halfmoon, on Wednesday demanded that the Democrats who control her chamber use their subpoena power to extract answers from the Cuomo administration.

State Sen. James Tedisco, R-Glenville, said Wednesday he finally got a bill number assigned to his proposal that a nonpartisan investigation be mounted with bipartisan oversight.

State Senate Democrats previously have said they will hold hearings on the matter.

The heads of two advocacy organizations for the nursing home/assisted living facility industry in New York state said they agree with the basic premise of the state report — that infected employees and visitors brought COVID-19 into nursing homes — but are mystified that the number of infected employees should be so far off in some cases.

“The facilities report through the [Health Emergency Response Data] System how many people are testing positive, so I don’t know why the numbers aren’t jibing,” said James Clyne Jr., president of LeadingAge New York.

Stephen Hanse, president of the New York State Health Facilities Association, said the hardest-hit New York nursing homes generally have been located in areas with high rates of community illness, suggesting that employees — and before they were banned, visitors — carried the virus into the facilities.

Asked about the outliers — such as Fulton and Warren counties, each with a high nursing home death toll and a low community death toll — Hanse said those anomalies exist statewide and nationwide and there isn’t a full understanding why.

The path of transmission seems clear enough: Clyne said frail residents of a nursing home can easily contract the virus from the aides bathing them, feeding them and brushing their teeth.

“What you see in nursing homes is, because the care is so hands-on … that spread in a nursing home is really easy to happen unless you have perfect infection control and unless you have a perfect supply of personal protective equipment,” he said.

There was no ability in March to conduct all the testing of staff members being done now, Clyne said, and he considers it unfair to judge the actions then of staff, administrators and regulators with the knowledge and tools available now.

“We were going weeks flying blind,” he said. “You had all these asymptomatic and presymptomatic people walking around.”

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The state Department of Health last week allowed friends and relatives to begin visiting residents in nursing homes again, but only if no resident or staff have tested positive in the past 28 days — a very strong restriction.

Hanse estimates only about 20% of the state’s 614 nursing homes will meet that test.

The Wesley Health Care Center in Saratoga Springs, for example, had a staffer test positive July 4 after going four months with just one staff infection. That reset the clock, and  now the earliest that residents will be able to receive visitors is Aug. 3.

Hanse said this isolation from loved ones is damaging to the frail elderly, and he’s hoping the state will reduce the lockout period to 14 days, which is the standard for quarantine in the COVID crisis.

The 28-day exclusion follows a federal guideline.

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