Is a vaccine needed for nursing homes to reopen?

Father Baker Manor
Photo credit Father Baker Manor/WBEN Photo

Residents of nursing homes remain one of the most vulnerable populations, with the issues at senior care centers taking center stage during the coronavirus pandemic.

New York State reports that of the 19,645 people who have died in the state, there are 2,274 who have died in a nursing home because of coronavirus. The figure does not include presumed coronavirus deaths in nursing homes, though there are an additional 2,539 presumed coronavirus deaths.  

In Erie County, there are 121 people who have died in a nursing home, though that figure is believed to be much higher because of presumed deaths and because many deaths statewide do not include nursing home residents who died at a hospital.

We reached out to multiple nursing homes in Erie County. Only The McGuire Group responded with a statement about how they are handling the coronavirus pandemic, but they did not address reopening plans.

“Our state and nation are faced with the impossible task of balancing the availability of hospital beds and policies for protecting the frail elderly,” A spokeswoman for The McGuire Group said in a statement. “Per the March 25, 2020 government order, nursing homes are not allowed to deny admission or readmission to anyone who is COVID-positive.

Our residents’ loved ones are contacted by our staff through the designated health care proxy/representative regarding any changes in status, including that related to the COVID virus. Adjustments to our COVID contact policy were made on the first business day after the order was given by the government. It is the health care proxy’s responsibly to communicate with appropriate family members.”

Experts and advocates in senior care do not believe that nursing homes in New York will reopen this month.

“We have to be careful not to put populations who are at risk in an even greater risk when we reopen,” Dr. Bruce Troen, UB Professor and Chief of the Division of Geriatrics and Palliative Medicine, said. “The real key to the question is…how are we able to test? If we can test and then trace in a way that is consistent, mind you, with our privacy to the best degree possible…then we have a much better shot at reducing risk.”

Lindsay Heckler, a supervising attorney for the Center for Elder Law and Justice, said despite the lockdown measures already enacted by nursing homes, the virus made its way in and has had a devastating impact.

Is a vaccine, then, the only way that the homes can reopen? She doesn’t believe that nursing homes need to wait until a vaccine, but it’s unlikely to open by the end of this month.  

Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Tuesday that if there is anything else the state can learn from the pandemic and can do, they will.

Unlike other nursing homes in WNY, Father Baker Manor has tested and retested everyone in the facility – patients, residents and staff – since its first sub-acute rehab patient tested positive for COVID-19 in early April. We believe this higher standard of testing, well beyond New York State Department of Health (DOH) requirements, has resulted in more deaths attributed to COVID-19 than other nursing homes in the region.
Non-COVID nursing home deaths are not publically reported, so it is likely COVID-related deaths may be underreported in facilities that do not extensively test their residents. It’s also important to note that many facilities consider their residents COVID-free after 14 days of testing positive, even if they are not re-tested. Under this assumption, if death occurs after that time, it may not be classified as a COVID-related death. At Father Baker Manor, residents are considered COVID positive until they test negative, which for some may be after one month or more.
While every loss of life is difficult, especially for the families who are not able to be with their loved ones at this time, as well as for our extended Father Baker family, we have many elderly residents with life-limiting health conditions. Some of these residents are already receiving end-of-life comfort care or have specifically requested that they do not want extreme measures to extend their life even in the wake of the Coronavirus.
Since first reporting that FBM had a number of patients, residents and staff who tested positive for COVID-19, Catholic Health has been working closely with the New York State Department of Health. Health Department officials reviewed our testing procedures and the numerous COVID mitigation efforts we are taking to reduce the spread of the virus. We believe these efforts are serving as a model for the planned site visits the DOH is making to nursing homes across the state."