Lamont defends response to COVID-19 crisis in nursing homes

An ambulance used to transport a patient is parked outside the Northbridge Health Care Center Wednesday, April 22, 2020, in Bridgeport, Conn.

An ambulance used to transport a patient is parked outside the Northbridge Health Care Center Wednesday, April 22, 2020, in Bridgeport, Conn.

Frank Franklin, II Associated Press

While a report by a New Jersey-based policy research firm found Connecticut health department officials were unprepared in response to the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on the state’s nursing homes and long-term care facilities, Gov. Ned Lamont said the state did its best given the unprecedented situation.

“No plan?” Gov. Ned Lamont asked during a Thursday news conference, addressing the report’s claims. “We reacted very quickly.”

To protect the state’s nursing home and long-term care facility residents, Lamont said he limited visitors to nursing homes, tracked down personal protective equipment for workers and tested as many staffers and residents as quickly as possible.

“Let’s face it, we should have done everything earlier, if we could have,” Lamont said. “Back in March, we were very limited in terms of the testing we had ... Early on, we had to send our tests down to Atlanta.”

Once the state started sending its testing to its public lab, it was limited to about 20 to 30 tests per day, Lamont said, adding the state ramped it up quickly.

The report, released by Lamont’s office Tuesday, is part of a larger study intended to assess the state’s and nursing homes’ responses to the COVID-19 crisis, and provide guidance ahead of any spike in the fall.

The state contracted Mathematica, a New Jersey-based policy research firm, to conduct the outside review of the crisis at nursing homes earlier in the summer.

When the year began, six of the nine positions in the state’s Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response were vacant, the report found. Those positions have since been filled.

The state Department of Public Health’s infectious disease staff also reported not having the “guidance they needed from DPH to help support facilities directly.”

Mathematica notes that despite the first cases of the virus appearing in March and April, the state did not begin electronic reporting from long-term care facilities until May 8. It noted the state did not have sufficient “emergency response and surveillance systems” earlier this year and focused its plans on response to hospitals, not long-term care facilities like nursing homes.

“The data system that DPH used to monitor infection control outbreaks did not sufficiently capture cases in nursing homes and assisted living facilities, so the state had to develop new systems and refine existing systems to monitor COVID19 by type of facility,” the report states.

Lamont on Thursday did call the data collection methods by many of the state’s nursing homes antiquated, adding that faxes were how some information was being shared.

This system slowed things down, the Mathematica report found, as did other issues like lack of proper staffing.

“We were hit hard in our nursing homes,” Lamont said. “If there is a flare up in October or November, we want to be ready.”

Lamont said the state now has a stockpile of PPE and aggressive testing availability.

At Three Rivers Healthcare, a nursing home in Norwich, the facility reported 11 new infections this week, but they were caught early, Lamont said.

He said the state is looking into what caused the spike, including how the new infections got into the facility.

Dr. Deidre Gifford, commissioner of the Department of Social Services and acting commissioner of the Department of Public Health, said during Lamont’s Thursday news conference that nursing homes must continue to follow protocol.

“When we find serious concerns in any facility … we require the facility to produce a plan of correction for that serious infraction or violation before we leave the facility,” Gifford said.

She said any issue that needs to be addressed, must be handled while state personnel are still on site.

State Rep. Vincent Candelora, a Republican whose district includes North Branford, said there were no surprises in the report.

“Connecticut was slow on the uptick to test, especially the workers going into the facilities, and as we know once it gets into a nursing home it spreads like wildfire,” Candelora added.

Candelora said the state should reassess how it provides funding for nursing homes, including the amount of compensation nursing home workers receive in light of the pandemic. In its assessment of the long-term care industry, the report also cited “moonlighting,” where health care workers at a nursing home have a second job providing care elsewhere. That practice has raised concerns the workers could unwittingly carry the disease from facility to facility.

Candelora said the state should ensure nursing home workers are appropriately supported “so you don’t see that type of moonlighting.”

“You have to financially back that up — nobody’s working three jobs because they enjoy it,’ he added.

The report drew sharply different reactions from a union that represents health care workers and two associations that represent nursing homes.

“The interim report issued by Mathematica validates what frontline caregivers said all along — that nursing home operators were not properly supervised by the Department of Public Health,” said Jesse Martin, vice president of District 1199, SEIU.

The union said it would not comment on the report’s specific findings until it includes testimony from health care workers — interviews that will be done in the weeks ahead.

But two organizations that represent nursing homes in Connecticut — the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities, which represents for-profit nursing homes, and LeadingAge Connecticut, which represents nonprofit providers — said the report validates what they’ve said for months, that high infection rates of COVID-19 occurs in nursing homes where there is also a high number of cases in the surrounding community.

They said to prevent the spread of COVID-19 at nursing homes, residents should continue to prevent the disease from spreading in their communities — including wearing masks, hand-washing and social distancing.