ALBION — On the day before Easter Sunday, Katie Bourke decided she had enough of working at The Villages of Orleans Health and Rehab Center.
“It was awful. Residents were crying, ‘Get me out. Call the cops. I don’t want to die,’ ” said Bourke, who worked at The Villages as a certified nurses’ aide. “They asked me to come in and work the positive wing on Easter. I never went back. I didn’t want to put my children at risk any longer.”
The Villages of Orleans, a 120-bed skilled nursing facility has been the hot spot of the COVID-19 crisis in Orleans County. As of Monday, 16 residents have died and 51 have tested positive at the facility, more than half of all cases reported in Orleans. The number of deaths differs from the official county total, with two cases unconfirmed.
An untold number of staff also have contracted the virus.
While there have been some positive cases in other Orleans nursing homes and none in Genesee, The Villages has been decimated.
How did this happen?
Blame is everywhere, from the nursing home administrator and staff supervisors, to state Department of Health and Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the directives he issued that have led to thousands of deaths at nursing homes throughout the state.
Cuomo early on ordered that all nursing homes were required to accept COVID-19 patients. He also said personal protective equipment and testing would be made available to curb the spread.
“Despite all the messages from Cuomo and state, the reality is we don’t have the test kits and personal protective supplies we need,” said Paul Pettit, director of Genesee-Orleans Health Departments. “It’s very frustrating. You hear all this about providing tests and supplies and it’s not true. We’ve been hampered in our ability to deal with COVID-19.”
On Friday, the Orleans County Legislature and Assemblyman Steve Hawley both called on state Department of Health Commissioner Howard Zucker to investigate.
“I am writing, with deep concern, relative to the numerous reports of illness and deaths due to COVID-19 at the Villages of Orleans Health and Rehabilitation Center in Albion, New York,” Hawley wrote. “I am asking for an immediate and full-scale investigation of The Villages of Orleans Health and Rehabilitation Center.”
Too little, too late, many who work at The Villages and the families of those who died say.
“(The Villages) sent poor nurses and patients off to slaughter and it’s not right,” Albion resident Dan Conrad wrote on Facebook after learning his mother tested positive while working at the nursing home. “I know for a fact you have sent nurses down halls without any PPE and failed to tell nurses there was COVID positive cases there.”
Conrad’s post exploded, he said, with interview requests from media and messages from numerous others who work at The Villages or have family at the facility.
“I’m angry,” he said. “I want to hold the Republicans in this county to blame for selling the nursing home and I want all the legislators to start standing up and fighting for us. They haven’t done a thing to stop what’s going on over there.”
Conrad’s mother, Diane, is still fighting for her life and is on a ventilator at Strong Memorial Hospital in Rochester.
Conrad on Sunday said his mother was doing a bit better, with the ventilator turned down as her breathing improved.
Diane Conrad retired from a state nursing job and started working per diem at the nursing home.
Her daughter, Casey, tested positive Friday morning.
“I was taking care of my mother,” she said. “I’m pissed. It’s not right what was going on there. I’m at a loss for words.”
Casey is in isolation for 14 days and sounded weak and raspy in a telephone interview Sunday.
“I want to see my mom and my kids and it’s frustrating,” she said.
The Conrads’ statements echo those from others who work at The Villages.
The first signs
Signs that something was not right appeared a month ago as more and more workers began complaining of the lack of protective gear and lack of concern by facility administration and supervisors.
One woman, whose sister is a nurse’s aide, said her sister was fired for refusing to come into work after learning the virus was spreading.
Her sister’s immune system is compromised and she didn’t want to take a chance of getting COVID, said the woman, who did not want her name used.
She and others also said that paper gowns are being reused; that they are asked to hang them up for the next shift to use, without being sanitized; that personal protection equipment was not provided to staff; and that it was under lock and key and that the nursing supervisor refused to provide equipment for staff.
Many also said that staff and families of residents were not told that the virus had hit the nursing home in the early stages of the pandemic.
“More people were sick than they were telling us,” Bourke said. “We had a nurse and an aide on each wing, if lucky. People were quitting and calling in all the time. One time it was just me for 30 residents.
“Everyone is alone in their rooms. I left crying for them. It was so sad.”
Lost both parents
For the families of residents, the situation has been stressful and frustrating.
A Medina woman, Susan Fuller, lost both her parents to COVID-19.
Bill Ames, 89, died April 22. His wife, Martha, died two days later.
Fuller is among several people who have filed complaints with the state Department of Health.
Kyle Brakenbury’s mother, Connie, was sent to The Villages by Medina Memorial Hospital for rehab about five weeks ago.
She was tested April 18 and on the following Tuesday, staff called her husband to pick her up.
When he got there they told him she had been exposed and tested.
“My dad had zero information,” Brakenbury said. “They never called him to say she was exposed and tested. He asked and after a long wait, they came back and told him she was negative. He knew she had been exposed and had to make a decision whether to take her home and possibly expose himself.”
He did and four days later she became feverish and weak.
She was taken by ambulance to United Memorial Medical Center in Batavia, where she was tested again, revealing she had COVID-19.
“She was swabbed at The Villages and put back in general population pending results, exposing others,” Brakenbury said. “We got better care from Carlton Fire Department, COVA and UMMC in two hours than my mom got in five weeks at The Villages.”
Brakenbury said his mother is recovering and is not at Oak Orchard Manor Nursing home. His dad, 82, is in quarantine at home.
Traveling to see mother
Few are faulting the staff at The Villages, a place that has long been understaffed since it was bought from the county in 2015.
Linda Dougherty’s mother, Carolyn Squires, 91, died of COVID-19 April 17.
She had been a patient, suffering from dementia but was in good health otherwise, Dougherty said.
“They called and said there was a case there and that my mother was being tested,” she said. “She was positive but asymptomatic. The dementia, however, got worse, to the point where she forgot how to swallow. She got very thin.”
Staff and the doctor decided that all they could do was make her comfortable.
Dougherty’s daughter traveled three hours, got a motel room and was allowed to visit Squires. She remained quarantined from others during her stay in Albion and would teleconference the family from The Villages.
“We appreciate that they allowed my daughter to visit,” she said. “They were very nice and would call to update me.”
Staff said they are doing all they can, although as more and more continue to call in sick, it has become difficult.
Cited by state
The 120-bed nursing home has been one of the most cited in the state by DOH inspectors.
According to DOH records, The Villages had 133 complaints filed against it from March 1, 2016, to Feb. 29 of this year. That is 118.9 complaints per 100 occupied beds. The state average is 49.6 complaints.
It has had 15.2 citations per 100 beds, far above the state average of 2.3.
The majority of the citations, seven, were complaints related to the administration.
Administrator Steve Hefter did not return calls. He did issue a statement to WHAM-TV, channel 13 in Rochester, however.
“At the Villages of Orleans, there is nothing more important to us than the health and well-being of our residents and staff,” the statement said. “Throughout this crisis, we have worked tirelessly to ensure we have adequate personal protective equipment for everyone in our facility. And while supplies of PPE have been limited nationwide, we have made it a priority to work with vendors who can get us the equipment we need to prevent the spread of this virus.”
That, obviously, has not happened as the number of cases continues to grow, nearing half of the population of The Villages.
Health department involvement
Pettit said he has been working with administration and staff “since this started.”
“We’ve been very involved,” he said. “We got them some equipment they needed, given them testing kits from our scarce supply, given recommendations such as separating positive patients. (But) we have no jurisdiction. The Villages is state regulated. The state DOH does have the ability to go in and take action. We don’t.”
The state Attorney General, Letitia James, has said that her office has received numerous complaints, not only about The Villages but numerous nursing homes throughout the state.
In a statement, she said “We are actively investigating these complaints and remain concerned about fatality rates, treatment, infection rates and whether nursing homes are adequately communicating with families.”
The state DOH also issued a statement, in part saying that nursing homes are “top priority” and that “The department will continue to work with administrators of private and county nursing homes to do everything possible to protect the health, well-being and privacy of the residents who call these facilities home.”
Despite the DOH saying “the state acted quickly and aggressively to issue guidance,” nursing homes have been the most hard-hit.
One of the problems: A policy that allowed COVID positive staff members to continue to work as long as they were asymptomatic. That policy was not reversed until Wednesday. Now, staff members have to isolate for 14 days.
Concerns at other nursing homes
On that same day, two other local politicians called for state investigations of nursing homes.
Assemblywoman Marjorie Byrnes, R-Caledonia, and state Sen. Patrick Gallivan, R-Elma, whose district includes Wyoming and Livingston counties, said their concerns were specifically about Hurlbut Care Communities, which operates a facility in Avon and one in Steuben County, among other locations. Both had seen a dramatic rise in cases and deaths, similar to The Villages.
“The failure to conduct timely universal testing of residents and workers in the Avon facility during this health crisis endangers our entire community,” Byrnes wrote. “Many are sick, and people have died. The management at this nursing home is refusing county assistance to complete testing. It is outrageous that Hurlbut is being uncooperative with conducting COVID-19 testing not just in Avon, but many of its facilities.”
Hurlburt’s Avon facility has had 15 cases and four deaths attributed to COVID-19 as of May 4. The Steuben County facility, Hornell Gardens, has been one of the epicenters of COVID-19 infections in Steuben County. The Star-Gazette, a daily newspaper in Elmira, Chemung County, reported April 28 that an investigation by the newspaper “found up to nine deaths related to the coronavirus linked to the facility.”
On April 24, Steuben County officials confirmed “at least six” deaths inside Hornell Gardens while a former staff member at the facility said 15 residents had died either in the facility or at a hospital since March 29, according to the Star-Gazette.
Hurlbut CEO, Robert W. Hurlbut, wrote a letter back to Byrnes that blamed “flawed mandates and reporting directives” – specifically one from the state Department of health that required nursing homes accept residents with confirmed or suspected COVID-19 – for putting nursing home residents and staff at risk. He also cited the lack of PPE, testing resources and back-up staff resources for nursing homes.
What is happening at The Villages, Pettit said, “is not uncommon.”
“Nursing homes are a high-risk population and respiratory illnesses run rampant in these facilities. Very aggressive actions need to be taken, along with diligence from supervisors and staff. I think The Villages was blind-sided. It’s a hot spot that day-by-day sees growth in the number of cases. It’s challenging because once it’s in there, it is hard to contain.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: The photographs of those who died at The Villages do not include five others who have died at the facility. They are: Joy Lee Wieme, Marguerite Magee, Richard Garden, Dennis Lowenstein and Ruth Myers.