Residents worry if nursing homes OK to open to public again

"Letting people back in, it’s risky. And the staff are going to be out and about more, that’s risky.”

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Linda MowBray admits she’s uneasy as communities ease restrictions meant to stop the coronavirus spread, luring people back to restaurants, businesses and normal life.

She gets it that the economy needs to be up and running again. But MowBray worries that as that happens nursing home workers could contract the virus and bring it into a facility without knowing.

“I’m scared to death of what’s going to happen,” MowBray, president of the Kansas Health Care Association, a nursing home advocacy group, told The Kansas City Star. “The virus is still out there, and people will still get sick. And when you have workers carrying it into a frail population, more people are going to die.”

She emphasizes that long-term care facilities still have a crucial need for the big three: Testing, personal protective equipment and more resources.

To that end, Vice President Mike Pence may have offered MowBray and other advocates a small sign of hope this week. During a call with governors on Monday, Pence recommended that all residents and staff of nursing homes be tested for COVID-19 in the next two weeks.

But just how that can happen is still unknown.

Officials with Kansas Department of Health and Environment and the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services are “having internal discussions” with the governor’s office about Pence’s recommendation, said Kristi Zears, a spokeswoman for KDHE.

Currently, facilities in the state monitor residents and staff for symptoms and test anyone who is symptomatic. If someone tests positive, KDHE works with the county health department to test everyone in that facility.

The need for testing kits and lab processing will be great if Pence’s recommendation is followed.

In Kansas alone, there are more than 300 nursing homes that are Medicaid and/or Medicare-certified. That accounts for 20,000 residents and 20,000 staff, Zears said.

In Johnson County, the health department hopes the resources are there to expand testing, said Dr. Sanmi Areola, director of the Johnson County Department of Health and Environment.

“As mentioned several times, testing needs to increase by several folds,” Areola said. “And we will continue to work to obtain these resources. We are working to establish relationships with local infection control experts to use as resources for these facilities.”

In Missouri, nearly 80 long-term care facilities have reported two or more cases. Though the state’s Department of Health and Senior Services does not track nursing home COVID-19 deaths, residents have died at several facilities in Missouri – including in Cass and Jackson counties.

“We believe it’s critical that adequate testing be made widely available immediately now that we understand that individuals can have the virus but not show any symptoms,” said Nikki Strong, executive director of Missouri Health Care Association. “It’s time to rally around our long-term care workers, who are frontline heroes.”

Beyond testing, long-term care facilities on both sides of the state line are experiencing staffing shortages and struggle to access enough protective equipment and other resources.

Facilities have to deal with these issues, advocates say, before they can even attempt to get back to any sense of normalcy and allow visitors again.

“The $100,000 question is how do we open it back up?” MowBray said. “At this point I really don’t know when it will be a safe and prudent thing to do. … Letting people back in, it’s risky. And the staff are going to be out and about more, that’s risky.”

In both Kansas and Missouri, state orders say there should be no visitation at long-term care facilities during the first phase of reopening.

Missouri Gov. Mike Parson’s order ends May 31. It isn’t known what restrictions will be included in the next phases.

In Kansas City, health officials stress the need to be cautious with this vulnerable population.

“We know families are yearning to visit their loved ones in nursing homes, to embrace them and look them in the eyes,” said Tracie McClendon-Cole, deputy director of the Kansas City Health Department. “As much as we want to visit freely, we have to remember this disease is most dangerous and deadly to them. We want families reunited, but will argue for strict and careful guidelines to protect their lives.”

Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly’s order doesn’t allow nursing home visits until the third phase of reopening. The order states that visits to long-term care facilities – as well as correctional facilities – “may be gradually reinstated.” The earliest the third phase could begin is June 1.

Nursing homes have the flexibility to implement their own visitation polices as long as they do not contradict the governor’s plan, said Cara Sloan-Ramos, a spokeswoman with the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services. Counties also may require different timelines.

As both states relax some restrictions, nursing facilities are still dealing with surges of coronavirus cases.

As of Wednesday, coronavirus deaths linked to long-term care facilities in Johnson County account for 74% of the total number of COVID-19 deaths in the county.

Homestead of Olathe North has reported 21 cases and five deaths. Forest Creek Memory Care in Overland Park has had 24 cases and seven deaths. Bickford at Mission Springs now has nine cases, according to the county health department.

And at Brighton Gardens of Prairie Village, staff have been overwhelmed with coronavirus cases, reporting the most cases and deaths in Johnson County. Cases jumped to 71 this week, and 14 people have died.

Prairie Village Councilwoman Jori Nelson continues to keep her constituents updated on Facebook on the virus inside the long-term care facility. This past weekend she posted when cases at Brighton Gardens stood at 70 and with 13 deaths.

“These are our residents,” she wrote. “These are mothers, fathers, grandparents, sisters, brothers, aunts, and uncles. They are much more than a statistic. This is devastating to our families and our community.”

Nelson told The Star she has constituents with family members who live at Brighton Gardens and they weren’t getting answers to questions about what was happening at the facility.

“My heart aches for those that have lost their lives and those who continue to struggle with the virus,” Nelson said. “It’s heartbreaking.”

Sunrise Senior Living, owner of the Prairie Village facility, released a statement on Tuesday to detail the precautions being taken in the facility.

Denise Falco, regional vice president of operations, said Brighton Gardens is working closely with the county health department to implement new measures to protect staff and residents.

The facility has just completed a second round of testing of people who previously tested negative for COVID-19. Based on those results, Falco said, Brighton Gardens will move residents who are positive to a separate area of the facility.

“We are deeply saddened by the impact this virus has had on our community,” Falco said. “Please know that we are doing everything we can to mitigate further impact to our community. We take our responsibility to provide quality care to our residents very seriously.”