11 Investigates: What’s being done to protect Pa. nursing home residents?

PITTSBURGH — It’s no secret nursing and long-term care homes are the hot spot for COVID-19 in southwestern Pennsylvania.

Now, there are new concerns over whether the people who live in these facilities are being marginalized in the state’s fight.

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11 Investigates has been digging into the treatment of nursing home residents in this COVID-19 crisis for weeks now.

What we’re finding is there is no consistent policy from facility to facility, family members are upset, a nursing home owner is frustrated and a U.S. Senator is calling for more transparency.

For weeks, Brighton Rehab in Beaver County was at the center of an ever-growing number of COVID-19 cases and deaths. Suddenly public updates on the number of people infected and the of deaths stopped.

“It feels like they're withholding information,” Matthew Seevers, whose mother is a resident at Brighton, said.

Seevers and others who have loved ones at the home were outraged when the facility released a cryptic statement saying that after consultation with the state, it decided to stop “counting test results” and presume “all staff and residents may be positive.”

“I think it’s ridiculous and I just think they need to be open and honest about what’s going on and try to get it fixed,” Severs said.

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As 11 Investigates first reported earlier this month, state inspection records show a serious history of safety violations at the facility and now Seevers said it’s even harder to get information about their loved one.

“That's my mother up there. There should be no secrets!" he told 11 Investigates’ Angie Moreschi.

About 10 days after Brighton's announcement, Kane Community Living Center in Glen Hazel also announced it would stop testing and assume everyone is positive after a major breakout there.

“I don’t know why you wouldn’t have more testing within a nursing home. That doesn’t make sense,” U.S. Sen. Bob Casey said.

Casey told 11 Investigates he found the decisions to stop testing to be baffling. He's calling for transparency and sent a letter calling on President Trump’s administration to release a list of nursing homes with positive COVID-19 cases.

“It’s absolutely essential, not only to make sure we’re monitoring the care they receive, the individual resident and making sure their families have an assurance of the state of their health, but it’s also vital for the entire community,” Casey told 11 Investigates.

He said it’s a matter of public safety.

“Because you have workers who are coming in and out of that facility. It’s really a community concern, not just a concern of that facility, families, and loved ones who are there,” Casey said.

James Cox owns Paramount Senior Living. He says if you assume all residents are positive, the shortage of personal protective equipment makes it unrealistic to protect everyone.

“Everyone at all times would have to have full protective gear on, masks, goggles, gowns, shoe covers, gloves,” Cox said. “I’m just not sure how you would manage that.”

Since Brighton said the facility made its decision in "consultation with the Department of Health,” Moreschi submitted a question to the Pa. Secretary of Health Dr. Rachel Levine April 7 about that guidance.

"I'm not going to discuss a specific facility for privacy and confidentiality purposes,” Levine said during one of her daily news conferences.

Levine would not directly answer the question at her daily public health briefing, but said at the time PPE was not a problem.

“It's a constant balance, but to date, we have sufficient supplies,” she said.

That answer is in direct conflict with the experience of Paramount's owner.

Cox said his facility has continuously struggled to get PPE, and at one point even had to make its own masks out of coffee filters. Cox said that’s when he called the Department of Health for help.

“We were told we would be put on a list and they would call us whenever they would have those supplies,” he said.

Cox said he got surprising insight into why the state is telling some nursing homes to stop testing when his own central Pennsylvania facility developed five positive cases.

“The comment was made, let’s not waste supplies and test everyone,” he said.

At the same time the state is telling nursing homes to reduce testing, it’s opening more public testing sites.

“This week we set up a mass testing site in the northeast, which started Monday. It is continuing to gear up and do more testing,” Levine said on April 21.

But that only upsets those with family members in long-term care facilities.

“That makes it seem like anyone now can get tested. Why can’t my mother be tested for this when she has key signs?” Dan Vete said.

Vete is frustrated his 93-year-old mom can’t get tested. Teresa Vete is a resident at UPMC Cranberry Place and was denied a test even though she had multiple risk factors, including her age, pneumonia and exposure to a worker who tested positive.

“It’s really an unfair situation. I just feel like seniors are being discriminated against,” Vete said.

Cox, the owner of Paramount said there is no consistency between nursing homes with regard to who is being tested, while Levine said there is logic at work.

“We certainly have prioritized the vulnerable population,” she said.

But despite public comments like that, some families say actions speak louder than words.

“They need to take the time to test everybody and care for them like the human lives they are,” Seevers said.

11 Investigates has asked questions every day this week about the PPE issue and concerns that family members feel their loved ones are being written off.

Dr. Levine has not answered one publicly. Instead, we get written answers from a public relations person side stepping the questions.