The Elderwood nursing home in Amherst will soon take in COVID-19 patients from hospitals, creating what’s believed to be Western New York’s first post-acute care unit for those with the novel coronavirus but also causing concerns for residents’ families.
Elderwood, the largest nursing home chain in Western New York, announced Monday that its 92-bed Amherst location has turned a 22-bed rehabilitation wing into a wing for COVID-19 patients.
These patients will be well enough to be discharged from a hospital, but still in need of additional care. The company expects to start admitting them within the next several days.
“We have created truly an isolated unit — isolated in every way,” said Elderwood CEO Warren Cole, noting the unit will have separate staff and a separate entrance. “And we think that we have done as good and complete a job in creating a safe unit as possible.”
Elderwood officials say the creation of the COVID-19 unit is simply complying with a New York state mandate. The state Department of Health put out an advisory March 25 that nursing homes cannot turn away a resident just because they have a confirmed or suspected case of COVID-19.
Dr. Paul Shields, Elderwood at Amherst medical director and a member of Kaleida Health’s COVID-19 Task Force, said the mandate will help prevent the hospital system from being overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients. Erie County alone has more than 100 people hospitalized with COVID-19, including 48 in intensive care units.
“If the continued behaviors within the community are to not take those patients to acute care, the hospital's acute beds will become overwhelmed and bottleneck,” Shields said. “This is a relief valve to move patients to the appropriate level of care.”
However, bringing positive COVID-19 cases into a nursing home has families uneasy.
“It just kind of sends everyone into a frenzy of worry, obviously,” said Rachel Kocsis, whose 86-year-old grandmother has resided at Elderwood at Amherst for about a year.
Kocsis, 25, said she understands the need for more COVID-19 patient beds, but isn’t sure a nursing home is the best place to put them. Older adults are considered at greater risk to become seriously ill from COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Officials nationwide, from Gov. Andrew Cuomo to President Donald Trump, have repeatedly said nursing homes are particularly vulnerable to a serious COVID-19 outbreak. An outbreak in a Washington state nursing home has already been linked to more than 30 deaths.
“I just don't think that someplace with so many compromised people is the right answer for that,” Kocsis said. “Just knowing that the risk is so high … it just doesn't seem like it's a risk that should be taken.”
Shields said the COVID-19 unit will not increase the risk of COVID-19 spread at the nursing home — it may actually decrease it.
He noted staff treating COVID-19 patients will be isolated from staff treating regular skilled nursing patients, a step he said is normally not done until residents are already showing symptoms. Plus, he said staff will become better versed in treating and managing COVID-19 care by focusing solely on COVID-19 care.
“So from a theoretical and risk standpoint, the risk of transmission in the building is reduced by the efforts that we're putting in,” Shields said.
Still, Kocsis and her family question whether staff treating COVID-19 patients will remain completely isolated from staff treating skilled nursing residents.
“I guess we're just not 100% sold on the fact that there's not going to be any cross-contamination or risk of exposure,” she said. “How will they be going about all of the precautions that they're talking about?”
Cole said that, as of now, Elderwood does not plan to open up COVID-19 units at any of its other 16 Western New York facilities.
“We will assess the need daily as the need ebbs and flows. So far, it's ebbed and it hasn't flowed, but we're watching it,” he said. “The COVID virus may present itself in any facility at any time, whether it's Elderwood or any other company's facilities. And each facility will have to take the appropriate measures at that time. … We don't know where it will present and when, but we're watching it daily and we will take appropriate actions as circumstances present themselves.”