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Officials silent on outbreaks

By Stephen Faleski, Stephen Cowles, Jimmy LaRoue, Alex Perry and Tracy Agnew

New statistics reported by the Virginia Department of Health on April 13 show the Western Tidewater Health District has three outbreaks of COVID-19 in long-term care facilities, but state and facility officials are mostly remaining silent on which facilities those are.

The state health department began this week to report the number of outbreaks in health districts and in what type of facilities those outbreaks were. But despite the public health concern, the department won’t identify which specific facilities have outbreaks, and several local facilities refused to answer direct questions about how many COVID-19 cases they have, if any.

Across the state, there are 102 total outbreaks, according to state department statistics reported Tuesday morning. More than half — 56 of them — are in long-term care facilities, accounting for 628 cases and 36 deaths.

The vast majority of the deaths have occurred at the Richmond-area Canterbury Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center, according to news reports, but the cases are spread throughout the state.

Western Tidewater Health District Director Dr. Todd Wagner said an outbreak is generally defined as “the occurrence of more cases of disease than expected.” During the COVID-19 pandemic, however, the guideline for a long-term care facility has been two or more individuals — residents or staff members — with confirmed cases.

In the Western Tidewater Health District, there are three outbreaks listed, all of them in long-term care facilities. However, Wagner said he could not say which facilities those are.

“We are currently actively tracking three outbreaks in our district in Long Term Care facilities,” Wagner wrote in a Monday email. “I cannot name or provide the location of the facility until permitted by the Commissioner of Health or the facility themselves.”

In response to an aggressive effort by reporters to get facilities to confirm or deny they had cases among residents or staff, only one — Autumn Care of Suffolk — confirmed it had positive cases.

Tameika Cross, the activities director at Autumn Care of Suffolk, told a reporter Friday there are two confirmed cases of COVID-19 among residents, and two among staff members. The residents are in isolation, and the staff members are on two weeks’ quarantine away from the facility.

The back hall of the east wing of the Pruden Boulevard building is being used as the isolation unit.

“The family members of every resident within the facility have been notified of our COVID-19 cases,” Cross said. “We have notified them of the cases, and of the precautions that the staff are taking to keep everyone safe.”

She said health screenings and questionnaires are being administered to all who enter the building, and only essential staff is admitted. Personal protective equipment must be worn at all times when entering the facility.

“We are strictly following the (Centers for Disease Control) guidelines,” Cross said.

Another Suffolk facility, Bickford of Suffolk Assisted Living and Memory Care, is reporting on its website that it has not seen any positive cases of COVID-19 through April 13. On the webpages for each of its facilities, it provides information under the heading “COVID-19 Transparency” and outlines its coronavirus protocols and policies for its staff and for their facilities.

It also posted a video from Bickford owner Andy Eby, in which he acknowledges “the elephant in the room” that people want to know whether Bickford facilities have had any positive cases of COVID-19, and if so, what it is doing to keep everyone safe.

In his video, Eby said that while he cannot shield every facility from experiencing the effects of the pandemic, Bickford can lead with transparency, best practices and love.

“As a caregiver, we must engage in an honest conversation about these critical issues,” Eby said, “so that you’re able to make informed decisions for your loved one.”

Riverside Healthy Living Community Smithfield, an assisted living facility, also has no confirmed cases of COVID-19, according Martha Hunt, the facility’s director of resident services and marketing.

Billie Turner, executive director of the Village at Woods Edge in Franklin, replied via email. The following is condensed from her statement: “We have not experienced any cases of COVID-19 within The Village to date. We are following the recommended guidelines from health officials along with consulting with Leading Age, a national organization comprised of senior living communities.

“We have been in continuous communication with state and local representatives from the health department, and will continue to do so throughout the pandemic’s continuation,” she added. “We are fortunate to have an Infection Control Team at The Village comprised of administrators, RNs and LPNs who have assisted in implementing new safety guidelines and who continue to communicate to residents and their family members. We have taken every precautionary measure possible and continue to consult as we learn more about this virus. For us, this includes screening staff members reporting to The Village to include temperature checks and not opening our community to visitors for the time being. We are encouraging residents to social distance and stay home.”

Other local care facilities, however, were less forthcoming.

Jennifer L. Trapp, vice president of corporate communications for Consulate Health Care, cited privacy concerns in responding to questions about the company’s Windsor facility.

“Out of respect for the privacy of all involved, we will not comment publicly on COVID-19 cases,” Trapp stated in an email. “We will continue to communicate timely with the proper healthcare agencies, families, staff and residents as necessary and appropriate.”

Regina “Gina” Williams, administrator for the Courtland Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center, first gave a reporter a phone number for a corporate office. Later, she provided the name of a regional director — Elizabeth Nugent — stating that person would be in touch with a reporter. There was no response from Nugent by the 4:30 p.m. deadline.

Jenna Green, a public relations specialist representing Bon Secours Mercy Health, also declined to answer questions about the East Pavilion facility in the city of Franklin. It was stressed in the question that only numbers were requested, not names.

“We are not releasing patient information related to COVID-19, consistent with our responsibility to protect patient privacy,” she stated in an email.

The state has a task force dedicated to mitigating outbreaks in long-term care facilities.