LOWER BURRELL, Pa. — A Westmoreland County nursing home has seen a surge in COVID-19 cases-- going from nearly zero to two dozen in one week. The spike at Belair Heathcare and Rehab in Lower Burrell has the families of some residents very concerned.
“All of a sudden, you bring all of these patients!” Heather Steven’s said, shaking her head. “This is ridiculous. This is ridiculous.”
Heather Steven’s mother Donna, who has Alzheimer’s Disease and is bedridden, has been a resident at Belair for three years.
11 Investigates discovered the sudden increase was caused when the nursing home’s parent company, Guardian Elder Care, made the decision to bring in COVID-19 positive cases from its other facilities.
Guardian owns several nursing homes in Western Pennsylvania, including Belair, Beaver, Beaver Valley, Brookline, Jefferson Hills, Eldercrest, Meadowcrest, Oak Hill, Scenery Hill, Scottsdale, and Uniontown.
"It started out with two patients, then it went to five, then it went to 12," Stevens said about the number of COVID patients increasing since last week.
As of 7pm on Friday, that number was up to 24 COVID-positive patients.
Stevens says she’d been happy with her care there, but doesn’t understand why the facility would now decide to put residents at increased risk for COVID after keeping them safe for so many months. The family is worried their mom might not make it if she becomes infected.
"Her immune system is very low and if she would get this she would not be able to survive," Stevens said.
Families not notified
Stevens says families were not notified the company would be bringing in the COVID-positive patients, even though federal guidelines require residents and responsible parties to be notified when patients or staff test positive.
“We’re very upset,” she said. “No one has contacted my dad. No one has contacted me or my brother. None of us.”
The family was even sent a letter by the company in May telling them about a new federal requirement to notify them.
“Last week, we told you about a new requirement for notifying residents and families in the event that COVID-19 positive findings occur in our facility,” the letter from Guardian said.
In the letter, a link was provided to the Guardian Elder Care website, where the public can look up the number of COVID cases at Guardian’s facilities, but the family says they were never notified directly about the increase in COVID patients.
The CMS rule says:
“CMS is requiring nursing homes to report COVID-19 facility data to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and to residents, their representatives, and families of residents in facilities.”
11 Investigates spoke to the owner of another nursing home chain to get clarification on how facilities must comply. James Cox, Owner of Paramount Senior Living, said, unequivocally, it is a state and federal mandate to directly notify residents and their representatives.
“You absolutely have to notify families in writing and you have to have proof, if DOH calls to check,” Cox said.
Steven’s husband says he’s angry the company was not more transparent with families.
"I feel like we feel a little bit deceived and betrayed," Rob Stevens said.
Dedicated COVID-19 Recovery Unit
Guardian confirmed in a statement to 11 Investigates that patients were moved to Belair from other Guardian facilities. The statement said:
Guardian Healthcare is now utilizing Belair Healthcare & Rehabilitation as a dedicated COVID-19 Recovery Unit.
In accordance with federal and state guidelines from CDC, CMS, and DOH, we completed transferring COVID patients from other local sites to Belair. These patients are being cared for on a separated floor and in a distinct area of the site apart from other residents.
We would like to thank caregivers at these sites for their tireless dedication to keeping residents safe in the face of an unprecedented public health crisis.
Still, the family has a hard time understanding why the company would move so many COVID-positive patients into a facility that had been relatively safe for so long.
“I think it’s the company trying to make more money and throwing health and safety out the window,” Stevens said.
The company said in a follow up email to 11 Investigates that increasing revenue did not play a part in the decision to move so many COVID positive patients to Belair. Instead, the company pointed to the design of Belair’s building as the reason:
“Belair’s physical plant provides a distinct environment to deliver safe and efficient care to COVID and non-COVID patients. The use of this site was part of a thoughtful strategy to prepare for safe COVID care in this region. Safe care is being provided to COVID-19 and non-COVID patients in the site to assure the best possible outcome for all.”
A lower level of the Belair nursing home had been empty for many months and is now being used to house the COVID-19 patients. Guardian also stressed in the email that it is taking precautions to protect residents and staff.
“Keeping with federal and state guidelines and our own best practices, separate entrances, staff, restrooms, personal protective equipment and other resources, helps us ensure COVID-19 residents receive the best care and other residents and staff are properly protected.”
Still, the Steven’s family can’t help but worry about their mom, especially because visitors are being kept out, per state guidelines, but COVID-positive patients are being brought in.
“You’re seeing a love one through a window. That’s hard. You can’t hug them, you can’t kiss them,” Stevens said choking up. “Now with them bringing patients in, who knows when we’ll be able to see her again.”
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