WATERLOO — The daughter of a Huntington Living Center resident who died during a highly publicized COVID-19 outbreak is criticizing Finger Lakes Health, which was cited by the state Department of Health for “immediate jeopardy” at the nursing home.
“My concern is they did not handle it properly once they started getting positive cases,” said Jill Sandroni, whose mother, Albina Meyers, died in late December. “You can’t tell me that since last March, when the whole world knew what would be coming, they couldn’t come up with some kind of plan?”
Sandroni, of Seneca Falls, contacted the Times and a Syracuse TV station after the DOH issued the citation last month.
Jeffrey Hammond, public information officer for the DOH in Albany, issued the following statement by email:
“To protect the residents and staff of Huntington Living Center from COVID-19, DOH launched an unannounced COVID-19 focus inspection on Dec. 11 and cited Immediate Jeopardy. An Immediate Jeopardy is assigned when the provider’s noncompliance has caused, or is likely to cause, serious injury or harm and there is an immediate need for it to be corrected to avoid further or future serious harm.
“After corrective actions were taken, DOH conducted a subsequent inspection to ensure that the facility fully implemented its plan of correction. DOH continues to monitor Huntington to ensure appropriate infection control measures are in place.”
Hammond said details of the Dec. 11 inspection would have to be obtained through a Freedom of Information Law request. Sandroni said she contacted the DOH about that as well and was told it could take up to 20 days to get those results.
Lara Turbide, vice president of community services for Finger Lakes Health, said Huntington went eight months — from March 2020 until last November — without a COVID-19 case.
“It was not until we saw more widespread community spread that we had our first case in November,” Turbide said. “We had two special focus infection prevention surveys (DOH inspections) during the outbreak, which were positive with no findings prior to the Dec. 11 citation, which is now under appeal (by Finger Lakes Health).”
Following a report by the state Attorney General’s Office that the DOH undercounted COVID-19 deaths among nursing home residents by about 50%, the DOH recently revised its statistics to count deaths among residents who were transferred to a hospital.
As of Feb. 4, the DOH reported that 28 Huntington residents died at the nursing home from COVID-19 complications. Another 17 died at an acute care (hospital) facility.
Sandroni said a reporter from the Syracuse TV station she spoke with told her Finger Lakes Health confirmed more than 130 positive cases at Huntington among residents and staff. Turbide did not return an email from the Times Wednesday to confirm that number.
Letters to the families of Huntington residents posted by Finger Lakes Health on its website had the number of resident cases at 87 at one point. In an earlier email, Turbide said there are no positive cases among residents and staff as of last week, and FL Health is working on resuming visitation.
“We are deeply saddened by the loss of beloved residents at Huntington Living Center. We are heartbroken and want to express our care for the families,” she said in the earlier email. “Our staff is grieving the loss of these residents who were part of the Huntington Living Center family and who we lost due to this global pandemic.”
“I am not blaming the nurses, food service, cleaners. They did what they could,” Sandroni said. “They were so short-staffed. They were just not getting the help they needed (from Finger Lakes Health).”
Turbide addressed the staffing issues, saying other employees in the Finger Lakes Health system — such as social workers — were called on to feed and care for residents.
“We honor our families who have lost a loved one,” she said. “We know how emotional the situation was for them.”
The first positive case for a resident was Nov. 4, about a week after an asymptomatic staff member tested positive. The outbreak was largely in the special needs unit (SNU), which includes residents with Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia.
“My mother was a resident there from January 2020, but after March I could not visit her. We did get a letter on Dec. 4 saying four residents were positive, and letters after that, then on Dec. 27 there were 87 resident cases,” Sandroni said. “What happened? How could there be 83 cases in 23 days?”
“It started with one resident in the SNU testing positive, and they didn’t quarantine that person?” Sandroni asked. “It’s the former Taylor-Brown Hospital, for God’s sake. There is a lot of room to quarantine people.”
Turbide said the SNU is a secure unit, with residents getting specialized care. She added that Huntington worked with the DOH on “cohorting” the unit.
“It is the residents’ home, so residents are free to move within the unit,” she said. “For these residents, human touch is important and understanding and remembering to social distance and respecting boundaries is a particular challenge, which adds to the complexity of care during the pandemic.”
Sandroni acknowledged that her mother, who suffered from dementia, would not wear a mask. She also said her mother, even when she was sick, would get herself out of bed and fall.
She also criticized Huntington and Finger Lakes Health for what she claimed was poor communication to the families of residents.
“All these letters were sent out with more cases confirmed, but they never told us where and what unit. I kept questioning them, and they finally told me after a few days that my mother tested positive. It was ridiculous, not knowing the state of my mother ... and I could not visit her,” she said. “I kept calling but could not get an answer. One day, I drove over there on a Sunday and pushed the button to get in. I was finally able to come in the next day with full PPE, and I was able to see her before she died.”