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Fulton County moves into reopening with high death toll from COVID-19

Fulton County moves into reopening with high death toll from COVID-19

Infection hotspot and 25 deaths at single nursing home inflate statistics
Fulton County moves into reopening with high death toll from COVID-19
Governor Andrew M. Cuomo provides a coronavirus update during a press conference on June 5, 2020.
Photographer: Governor's Office

GLOVERSVILLE — Fulton County said Friday it is expecting a slight uptick in positive tests for COVID-19 as the region continues the process of reopening, and urged residents to keep safety in mind as something like normalcy returns.

Public Health Director Laurel Headwell provided an update Thursday on the pandemic locally: 223 county residents infected to date and 30 deceased.

The state Department of Health’s database indicates Fulton County residents tested for COVID were infected at a much higher rate — 5.1% — than in any neighboring county.

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As with a number of other upstate counties, an infection cluster at a nursing home drove the illness and death statistics far above what has been seen in most midsized semi-rural communities.

“We started off slow, we did not have a lot of cases and then unfortunately the nursing home was affected by COVID-19,” Headwell said via email Friday. “In a facility such as a nursing home, with such a vulnerable population it does create a serious illness and a rapid spread of the disease once it is there.”

Twenty four residents and one employee of The Fulton Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing have died of COVID, or approximately one out of seven residents if the 176-bed facility was full to capacity.

(Also in Fulton County, one resident died at Nathan Littauer Nursing Home.)

Headwell said the county, while not the regulatory entity for nursing homes and hospitals, has been in daily or near-daily contact with the facilities during the pandemic, and did ask the state Department of Health to assist the Fulton Center as the situation there worsened.

WIDE VARIATION

Fulton Center is owned by Centers Health Care, a large multistate operation based in the Bronx. A spokesman Friday said the situation is in hand at the Gloversville nursing home. From a peak of 135 positive tests (resident and employee) the facility is down to nine confirmed and 65 suspected cases.

This has been accomplished through the extensive precautions and multiple rounds of testing that are now standard at nursing homes across the state, as well as the staff’s skill and bravery, he said.

The situation at Fulton Center has been seen at thousands of nursing homes. When the virus is introduced to a group of frail and vulnerable elderly people living in close quarters, it spreads rapidly and kills easily, and does not take into consideration the ratings assigned to that particular facility.

Fulton Center receives one star out of five from federal regulators and a two-star rating from state regulators, though both give it a four-star rating for quality of care.

By comparison, 64 residents have died at the 160-bed Baker Manor in Erie County, 82 at the 527-bed Parker Jewish Institute in Queens, and 63 at the 350-bed Long Island State Veterans Home, which is run by the state. All three facilities hold five-star ratings.

Elsewhere in the Capital Region, Centers Health Care’s facilities in Troy and Schenectady, which hold one- and two-star federal ratings, have had zero positive tests and zero COVID deaths, the company spokesman said.

Further illustrating the seemingly sporadic nature of these hotspots and infection clusters, the facility that Centers operates in Glens Falls has been hard-hit, with 15 confirmed and five presumed COVID deaths, according the state DOH database, while 10 other upstate nursing homes that Centers operates have zero listed fatalities.

The state database is misleading because it doesn’t count nursing home residents who die in hospitals, and it has been inaccurate at times because of errors in data self-reported by the hundreds of facilities.

The database also doesn’t provide a cumulative total of nursing home deaths statewide.

 

As of May 31, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services tallied New York nursing home deaths at 8,766 — fourth-highest in the nation, slightly less than neighboring Massachusetts, New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and 11th-highest as a percentage of statewide nursing home population.

Through the pandemic, Cuomo has shifted stance repeatedly on nursing homes as he has come under fire for the spread of disease in them. He first ordered that nursing homes readmit residents infected with COVID-19, then much later ordered that they not. He maintains federal guidelines called for readmission, though CMS denies this. He initially refused to make public any data about nursing home fatalities, then released it only for facilities with five or more deaths, then released it for all facilities.

With only a belated attempt by the state to tally nursing home resident deaths in hospitals, and with no cumulative death toll offered by the state, it’s hard to quantify a detail that is likely to remain one of the strongest points of criticism of Cuomo's handling of the pandemic.

REMAINING VIGILANT

Fulton County, where 26 out of 30 COVID deaths are directly related to nursing homes or assisted living facilities, has a situation similar to Columbia County (29 out of 34) and Warren County (31 out of 33) — the three are of similar size, are mostly rural with a small city or two, and sit on the fringes of a larger metropolitan area.

Save for the nursing home deaths, they would each have emerged from the worst of the pandemic with little grief.

Headwell, the Fulton County health officer, said the way forward from the costly pandemic is continued caution.

“As we continue in the next few weeks we do still plan on seeing a slight uptick in numbers due to the testing that we have,” she said. “Also, as the county re-opens in the phased approach and people begin to migrate back to work and congregating, it allows for the spread to continue.

“As a county we need to wear masks, wash hands, and slowly introduce ourselves back to our friends, family, strangers and our once-everyday activities.”

With 42 new fatalities Thursday, the state’s official COVID-19 death toll stood at 24,175 Friday morning. One Capital Region death was added to the total: an Albany County man in his 70s.

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