Some Virginia nursing homes still struggling to get PPE: ‘It’s unacceptable’

Elder care facilities push back against test suggestions.
Posted at 3:48 PM, May 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-29 20:59:51-04

CHESTERFIELD COUNTY, Va. -- Julie Lewis lives on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, but she managed to make it to Virginia to visit her 93-year-old father outside of his window at Brandermill Woods in Chesterfield.

"Love you dad," Lewis said as she stood with her sister and niece.

"Happy birthday Julie," her father said over the phone.

So far, seven residents at Brandermill Woods have died from COVID-19. More than 20 residents and 17 staff members have tested positive for the virus.

Thankfully, Lewis's dad, Harry Lewis, remains COVID free.

Yet Julie is constantly worried that he might get it.

"That's the scariest call you can get," Julie Lewis said.

Thus far in Virginia, 190 long term care facilities have COVID outbreaks, and 708 residents have died from the coronavirus.

They account for nearly 60 percent of all COVID deaths in the state.

Remarkably, the Virginia Hospital and Health Care Association reports a number of elder care communities are still having trouble obtaining personal protective equipment (PPE).

"It's unacceptable that these communities can't get the appropriate equipment that they need," Julie Lewis said.

Sixteen facilities report needing isolation gowns, which are something Dr. Jim Wright, the medical director at Canterbury Rehab in Henrico, the site of the state's first and hardest hitting outbreak where 50 residents died, said is critical to stopping the spread.

"It's really the reusing of gowns that puts our elders at risk," Wright said.

Even at Canterbury, where they are now taking in recovering COVID patients from hospitals, the staff has to reuse gowns.

"This takes an extra step, and it does make it extra dangerous as a result," Wright said.

To that point, Governor Ralph Northam recently highlighted Virginia's efforts to build up PPE supply.

"We are now at a place where our hospitals have an adequate supply. Additionally, FEMA is shipping some protective gear directly to nursing homes," Northam said at a press conference last Friday. "If health care providers working to fight the COVID 19 pandemic need PPE we will make sure they have it, they just need to please let us know."

Dr. Danny Avula, head of the Richmond and Henrico Health Departments, said he worries that as Virginia reopens, we will see more cases in long term care.

"It does raise some concerns for me because what I continue to hear is we don't quite have everything we need," Avula said.

On the other hand, testing, which has been a major issue in Virginia, recently ramped up.

The federal government strongly suggested that every eldercare facility test every resident and staff member this month, and Dr. Avula said we now have the capacity to do so, yet some facilities are pushing back.

"There have been for various reasons, hesitations, on typically the part of corporate ownership of facilities," Avula said.

Dr. Wright blames potential staffing shortages and bad press.

"I totally understand both those impulses, but in the end you've got to know," Wright said.

Virginia does not report the names of facilities with outbreaks.

State officials said Virginia code does not allow the release, but Joani Latimer, the state's long term care ombudsman, said residents and their families deserve to know.

"It makes sense that they want to know this, and it seems reasonable to me because they've having to make decisions about their own care," Latimer said.

"I don't understand why the state feels the need to hide this information," Julie Lewis said.

Although the state is not releasing nursing home specific information yet, the federal government will be doing so by the end of the month.

Dr. Wright said he thinks the state will ultimately have to mandate testing in every facility.

He said as we start to re-open it will be critical to frequently test staff for the virus.