When the number of positive coronavirus cases sailed past 400 this week, Gov. Ned Lamont declared he had found additional beds to help aid the crush of patients expected to overwhelm Connecticut’s hospitals.
At least 2,000 of those alternative beds are in the state’s nursing homes.
“We have to look at, how can we get more beds? How can we get more space?” Lamont told reporters at a press conference. “And we’ve now prioritized 2,000 nursing home beds that we think over the next month or so could be made available for COVID-related infections as needed.”
That pronouncement has stoked fears about the rapid spread of a potentially deadly disease in places that house some of the most vulnerable people.
Matthew Barrett, president of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities, which represents 145 of the state’s 213 nursing homes, said operators of those care centers want to be part of the solution. But admitting patients who have tested positive for coronavirus or whose test results are pending puts everyone in the building at risk, he said.
Many of the facilities don’t have empty wings or vacant floors, so the beds are mixed in with the general population. But even at nursing homes with unoccupied floors, managers fear their staff and residents will be exposed to the virus.
“Nursing homes do not support addressing hospital overflow issues by admitting patients whose COVID-19 status is unknown,” Barrett said. “Given Connecticut’s proximity to the global epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic, admitting patients during this health care emergency is only going to be possible if those patients are tested negative.”
Max Reiss, a spokesman for Lamont, said nursing homes are just some of the places the administration is reviewing to place excess hospital patients. State officials also are looking at other health care institutions, college campuses and private facilities.
But nursing homes are enticing because they already have a good standard of care.
“If there’s a way to utilize nursing home bed capacity, that’s what we’d like to see, especially because we know there’s a standard of care for people in nursing homes that’s appropriate,” he said.
As state officials consider using those empty beds, Reiss said, nursing homes should take the precautions they deem necessary to prevent the spread of the virus.
Many nursing home managers are already doing that. Some now require negative coronavirus tests to admit new residents.
Athena Health Care Systems, which has 54 nursing homes, assisted living facilities and home health care agencies across Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts, mandates that any person entering one of its facilities from a hospital in New Haven County, Fairfield County or Waterbury must first test negative for the disease. Those areas have been particularly hard hit by the virus.
For anyone who has tested positive for the illness, Athena requires two consecutive negative tests within 24 hours before admission, said Timothy Brown, a spokesman for the company.
“This is not about not wanting to be part of the solution. This is about wanting to protect the nursing home population from a virus that could kill them.”
Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities
But it’s not clear if hospitals have the ability to test every patient before discharging them to a nursing home. State leaders have cautioned that the availability of tests is still limited.
“There’s an unevenness in the hospital community about that testing. Some hospital systems are responding to the nursing home sector’s concern. The tests are being done, and that frees up the admission issue,” Barrett said. “But I don’t believe that’s the case across the board.”
The availability of tests is a key concern. Without a negative result, some patients may be stranded at hospitals because they won’t be accepted at nursing homes.
Officials with the Connecticut Hospital Association and with several hospitals in New Haven and Fairfield counties were not immediately available for comment Thursday.
Questions about staffing have also come up as Lamont and other state leaders look to nursing homes. Some facilities are already short staffed, and several are losing more workers because employees have fallen ill or tested positive for coronavirus. Filling up more beds in nursing homes would complicate that.
“You have to have staff for the additional residents,” Barrett said. “In this current environment, it’s even more challenging to address the staffing issue.”
Barrett sent state officials a list of vacant and recently shuttered nursing facilities throughout Connecticut. Housing excess hospital patients in these separate buildings would help prevent the spread of the disease in nursing homes, which on average are 88 percent occupied, he said.
More than 60 vacant facilities are on the list, though not all of them are available or can be retrofitted for patients. Still, Barrett said, the spaces could potentially house thousands of beds.
“This is not about not wanting to be part of the solution. This is about wanting to protect the nursing home population from a virus that could kill them,” he said. “For every one admission or 10 admissions, there are still 100 other residents in a building, perhaps, and they would be put at risk.”