Not long before she died, Ella “Ellie” Russo told her daughter she thought she could live to 103.
“If anyone could have done it, she could have done it,” Russo’s daughter Carole Vosburgh told me.
The COVID-19 outbreak at Russo’s nursing home, River Ridge Living Center in Amsterdam, changed everything.
Vosburgh learned her mother had contracted the virus in mid-November.
The case seemed mild, and Russo appeared to beat it, ultimately testing negative for the virus. Then, on Dec. 4, she died at River Ridge. The official cause of death was heart failure, but Vosburgh believes COVID-19 was also a factor, diminishing her mother’s quality of life and hastening her demise.
Long-term care facilities were hit hard by the coronavirus in the spring, but as New York’s COVID-19 caseload subsided, so did the number of nursing home residents stricken by the virus.
Now cases are spiking locally, and COVID-19 has re-emerged as a major threat to nursing homes, raising questions about whether these facilities are better prepared to protect residents from a virus that wreaks havoc in group settings and disproportionately kills the elderly.
At River Ridge, a total of 10 residents have died from the virus, linking the long-term care facility to half of Montgomery County’s coronavirus deaths.
“The virus is brought into these homes by young, healthy staff,” Montgomery County Executive Matt Ossenfort said. “Once it gets in, it spreads quickly.”
The high death toll at River Ridge caught my eye, but it’s certainly not alone in battling a resurgence of the virus.
Glendale Home, Schenectady County’s nursing home, reported a COVID-19 outbreak in November and saw its first death from the virus earlier this month.
The Edward L. Wilkinson Residential Health Care Facility in Amsterdam also suffered its first death from the virus following a rise in cases. And last week the Wesley Health Care Center in Saratoga Springs reported that 17 residents and two employees in a single unit had tested positive for the virus.
The impact of the virus goes far beyond the number of people killed by it.
Those who get sick and recover are isolated, confined to their rooms even after testing negative for the virus, according to relatives. Family members who have mostly been barred from visiting loved ones in long-term care facilities since the start of the pandemic now face even tighter restrictions.
In a heartbreaking obituary, Vosburgh blasted state policies that limited nursing home visits and left her mother isolated and mostly alone in her final months of life.
“Confined to a small room for the last month, unable to visit with family was unbearable for all,” Vosburgh, 75, wrote. “She beat the COVID-19 virus but complications that resulted, fueled by (Department of Health) guidelines, were instrumental in her death. Loneliness, loss of hugs and loss of freedom were her ultimate demise. She was told she could not see her family to protect her, yet she contracted the virus.”
Russo, a Johnstown native, moved into River Ridge at the age of 99.
She would have turned 102 this month, and Vosburgh believes she might have lived for another year or two, if not for the pandemic.
“She was one feisty, sweet woman, but she got COVID,” Vosburgh, of Schenectady, told me. “I felt that if I could have been there every day, I could have kept her alive. It’s not that she died. It’s the way she died.”
Ava Douglass’ octogenarian mother also lives at River Ridge.
Like Russo, she contracted the virus in mid-November and beat it – but now Douglass is worried the isolation will kill her.
“She is getting more and more anxious and sad, and she’s crying and wanting me to come in,” said Douglass, who has been limited to outdoor window visits with her mother. “I can see her decline. She’s not eating or drinking. It’s almost like she’s given up. Maybe she’s feeling abandoned.”
Douglass’ mother has dementia.
When she first contracted the virus, she was moved into a room with another COVID-positive roommate. That woman died, and was replaced by another COVID-positive roommate, who also died. Now her mother is alone, prohibited from leaving her room.
“She has nosedived,” Douglass said. “Up until this episode with COVID and the isolation in her room, she was pretty content.”
Douglass placed the blame for her mother’s deterioration on the state Department of Health and what she termed their “barbaric” policies.
“The people at River Ridge are doing the best they can,” she said. “It’s a tough situation.”
According to the New York Times, 106,000 COVID-19 deaths have been linked to nursing homes – nearly 40 percent of the overall death toll. A recent piece in the news website Politico reports that between mid-September and Oct. 25 COVID-19 cases in nursing homes increased more than 40 percent after seven straight weeks of steady decline.
Those are shocking statistics – and shameful ones.
Sadly, nursing home residents are now suffering the twin effects of a virus that is re-invading long-term care facilities and the prolonged isolation that results from efforts to suppress it.
It’s a tragic situation, and ought to inspire state and national officials to take a close, hard look at how to improve the overall quality-of-life in nursing homes after the pandemic is over.
Family members often tell me that facilities are short-staffed – what can be done to fix this? What can be done to ensure that nursing homes are doing everything they can to control and prevent the spread of infectious disease? How can we better involve family in the care of their loved ones in the event of another pandemic?
These are just some of the questions that merit deeper consideration from policymakers.
With the second wave of coronavirus now upon us, I’m hoping the nursing home death toll won’t be as high as it was in the spring.
But I fear it will be even worse.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.