On March 25, when the hospital surge of COVID-19 patients was moving toward its peak, Gov. Cuomo issued a mandate requiring all New York nursing homes to accept patients appropriate for admission, regardless of whether they’d been diagnosed with the coronavirus.
Nursing-home residents have proven to be the most vulnerable population with regard to the virus, yet we were obligated to admit people who might potentially harm them.
Still, caring for people is what we do, and although the industry opposed the mandate, our nursing homes put an appropriate plan in place, on our own, with little help or support from the state.
Before the mandate, our facilities had two residents in-house who had tested positive for the disease.
Today, we have more than 60, more than a third of whom came to us already positive from the hospital.
Besides putting our residents at risk, our staff has borne the brunt of this mandate, as well. More than 50 of our workers have tested positive for COVID-19, and although more than half have recovered and returned to work, we are mourning the loss of a beloved member of our housekeeping team.
Staff is afraid for their own safety — and terrified they will bring COVID-19 home to their families.
At great expense, with no additional funding or priority status for receiving personal protective equipment, we assessed what would be needed to accept COVID-19-positive patients safely to protect both our residents and workers.
That plan included the purchase of moveable “infection control risk assessment” wall panels to create isolation units and additional quantities of PPE to keep our staff and residents safe.
Because of the costs related to caring for this influx of patients, there is now little money left for any bonus or hazard pay that our staffers so deserve. Our size — more than 900 employees — makes us ineligible for grants that others might be able to procure.
Before COVID-19, the nursing-home industry was ravaged by budget cuts. By the time the coronavirus leaves us, we may have each spent millions of dollars in combatting the disease. That is millions of dollars that most of us operators — especially non-profits — do not have to spend.
Was there another way?
Through our trade associations, many of us voiced our disapproval of the state mandate. I had anticipated that vacant facilities in each county might be used to care for virus-positive hospital patients, which would have helped the hospitals free up much-needed beds while providing a safe, isolated solution for those recovering.
We understand the dilemma: Our hospital partners needed space for their critically ill patients. But making nursing homes an option for coronavirus sufferers was a poor decision.
It has shaken nursing homes in the state, including making it more difficult for us to care for our other residents.
It also has painted us in a bad light, putting our industry at risk.
There had to be a better way.
Stuart Almer is president and CEO of the Gurwin Health Care System, including the Gurwin Jewish Nursing & Rehabilitation Center.