Long Before Covid Surge, Senior Care Facilities Wage A Daily War To Keep Virus Out

Staff at the Westhampton Care Center are wearing masks, and sending messages, to protect the seniors in their facility.

While much of the attention of medical experts and government support agencies have been focused on the mad dash to expand hospital care capacity and supplies of protective equipment before the anticipated peak in COVID-19 infections hits, facilities that care for the aging and infirm have found themselves facing an immediate threat every hour of every day.

The elderly and people who have pre-existing medical conditions that have weakened their immune systems — from cancer to car crashes — have made up the vast majority of those who have died or been left on mechanical life-support by the COVID-19 infection, and facilities housing those vulnerable people know that a single case could mean disaster.

At least eight deaths have been reported from among the residents of Peconic Landing, a senior living facility in Greenport where a sick employee introduced the disease early in the local outbreak.

On the South Fork, managers of senior facilities are in a desperate daily fight to keep the virus outside their doors.

“We have to be of the mindset that we just have to act like everybody has it because we just don’t know,” said Kelly Brady, the head administrator at the Westhampton Care Center in Westhampton. “We started screening employees every day back at the beginning of March. There’s no visitors. We’re keeping everything outside. All deliveries are outside, even the ambulette drivers, we’re bringing [patients] out to them so they don’t have to come inside.”

Temperature checks and a survey about their health are greeting employees of most of the region’s senior and care centers when they arrive for work each day. Masks, as uncomfortable as they may be, are all-day requirements in many wings.

At The Villa, a high-end assisted living complex next door to the Westhampton Care Center, a staff member tested positive last week, the facility confirmed to residents and their families. Executive Director Jeff Thompson said the employee’s illness was picked up in a pre-shift screening and the man was ordered to quarantine and be tested for COVID-19, which came up positive.

“We knew we were going to have one eventually, because the tricky part of running a place like this is that we are dependent on staff,” Mr. Thompson said, spotlighting that there have been no other staff members and no residents exhibiting signs of illness since the confirmed case. “Every day, when our staff arrives for work, we take their temperature and if it is 100 degrees or above, we send them home and encourage them to see a doctor. Everyone is wearing masks any time they are with a residents, and we’ve stepped up all of our cleaning and sanitizing protocols.”

The Hamptons Center for Nursing and Rehabilitation announced on March 25 that it has a patient suspected of being infected with COVID-19 virus.

Director Vincent Liaguno did not return phone calls or messages from The Press this week seeking comment, but in statement from the Southampton Village nursing home, the facility’s administration said that the person suspected to be infected was an elderly female resident who lives in one of two dementia units.

The statement said the woman had a temperature spike overnight on Tuesday and that a subsequent chest X-ray ordered by medical staff revealed signs of symptoms of coronavirus infection.

The facility said it was treating the case as though it were a confirmed infection, and that the woman and her roommate were being quarantined to their rooms and all patients in the same unit were having their temperatures taken twice daily and were being monitored for respiratory symptoms.

The center said that all staff caring for the woman and her roommate are wearing protective gear and that sanitizing services in their room will be increased.

“With the outbreak picking up strength in the area, we would expect to see additional cases in the coming weeks, but are working diligently to both minimize the spread of the virus to the highest degree practical and catch symptoms from their earliest onset,” the care center said in its statement. “There are no suspected or confirmed cases on any other unit within the facility.”

The most difficult aspect for many of the residents of senior facilities now may be the lack of connection to the outside world. No visitors and no co-mingling activities wear on the mental health of residents, directors said.

Ms. Brady said the Westhampton Care Center halted all group gatherings and meals weeks ago, but has introduced new rolling coffee and snack rounds to give residents “a little something special, to boost spirits a little.” Staff have been helping with Skype connections to family and friends in the outside world.

For East End Hospice, the protocols to protect patients and staff have been particularly gut wrenching to enforce. Families who are losing loved ones without being able to be by their side have introduced a new level of bereavement support to the group’s already difficult role, with the added challenge of bridging social distancing guidelines.

“A lot of patients die alone because of the infection controls, and there is a lot of support needed for those families,” Mary Crosby, the group’s director, said. “We’ve provided a lot of support to Peconic Landing. We’re going to continue seeing this sort of thing. It’s going to be a big need and we’re ready for that.”