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Nursing Homes Struggle To Keep COVID Out As Deaths Rise

Nursing home driveway entrance
Emily Bollinger
Heritage Health of Normal has had 15 COVID-related deaths, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.

Nursing home operators say once the coronavirus is in a community, it's nearly impossible to keep it out of their facilities. As the COVID-19 death toll rises at long-term care facilities across McLean County and the country, some observers say many nursing homes aren't equipped to handle an infectious outbreak.

In late December, the Sugar Creek Alzheimer's Special Care Center in Normal was in the throes of a major COVID outbreak.

On Dec. 20, administrator Crystal Biddle sent a letter to all Sugar Creek families, informing them a majority of residents and some staff had tested positive for the coronavirus. The letter outlined the severity of the outbreak, and what staff are doing to care for residents. That includes frequent COVID testing, close monitoring and keeping residents hydrated.

"Unfortuntately, we were not successful at keeping COVID out of our building," the letter stated. 

Biddle said the letter was to keep their families informed. Ten people at the facility have died of COVID complications.

Biddle said that death toll has taken an emotional toll on staff.

“We do often have residents here through end of life, so that’s not new to us to have someone pass away, but to have this many tragic deaths is just overwhelming and very hard to cope with,” she said.

Nursing homes everywhere are struggling to limit COVID spread.

The Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH) reports 76 people have died in McLean County long-term care facilities. That makes up more than 60% of the county's COVID death toll.

Terri Edens is administrator of the McLean County Nursing Home in Normal. She said the facility was largely COVID-free until November.

Terri Edens portrait
Credit McLean County Government
McLean County Nursing Home administrator Terri Edens said six residents have died of COVID-19, not the 11 reported by IDPH.

The site has since had more than 80 COVID positives reported. Edens told McLean County Board members at a committee meeting nothing at the county-run home has changed. She said staff still follows all health protocols, including wearing PPE.

“They are wearing everything. I’m not sure other than everyone is out and about,” Edens said. “It just takes one to come in and then it just…. We are as flabbergasted as you are. Trust me.”

The state reports the county nursing home has had 11 COVID deaths. Edens disputes that, claiming the number is only six. She said eight other residents have died from other factors.

“The numbers that are coming out, I don’t know,” Edens said at the meeting. “Every day I see the newspaper and every day I hear the news and every day I come in here and say where are they getting their numbers. Are we not counting right?”

Nursing homes have banned all non-essential visitors for much of the year. But Matt Reihle, chief operating officer at Westminster Village in Bloomington, said employees still come and go, so the risk of COVID spread is unavoidable.

“They can’t work from home and we can’t just set up a computer at a desk because people are coming in 365, 24-7--literally 365 as we are getting close to a year now,” Riehle said.

Heritage Health of Normal has had more than 100 coronavirus cases and 15 deaths. Both are the most of any long-term care facility in the county. Becky Smith, Heritage's senior vice president or nursing and clinical services, said more COVID testing isn't the answer. Everyone already is tested twice a week when the county's positivity rate tops 10 percent, but she said those tests don't catch every case.

“It only takes one employee who potentially has no symptoms and they are not even testing positive. They are not exhibiting any symptoms to potentially spread that to a resident,” Smith said. “It’s not because they have done something wrong.”

They've done nothing wrong unless they aren't wearing a mask on the job, or flouting other health protocols. Smith said such instances are rare, but they have happened.

Smith said IDPH has issued minor citations against Heritage facilities outside of Bloomington-Normal for not following COVID guidelines, adding state health officials have provided proactive oversight by frequently visiting facilities that have had COVID outbreaks.

IDPH also fields health care complaints from the public, including this one filed by McLean County Coroner Kathy Yoder based on what she saw at one nursing home.

“The staff member was not wearing their mask and they were, sadly, twirling it in their fingers,” Yoder said. “That makes me sad and it makes me sad for all the residents there.”

The full scope of IDPH's enforcement of health protocols isn't clear. WGLT submitted multiple requests to speak to the agency. It never responded.

Legal action

Some COVID issues end up in court.

Marlene Cowans-Hill was a resident of Bloomington Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center. Cowans-Hill called 911 herself several times asking to go to the hospital when the facility was in the midst of one of the area’s first COIVD outbreaks in May. She had recently tested positive for COVID-19.

“I’ve got to go to the hospital and they are not letting me go,” Cowans-Hill told the 911 operator. “I can’t breathe. I can’t catch my breath.”

Cowans-Hill was taken to the hospital two days later. She died the following day. Her family is suing.

“There’s clearly a systemic problem within this facility,” said Megan Shore, the Chicago attorney who filed the lawsuit against Petersen Health Care.

Chicago attorney Megan Shore filed the lawsuit against Peoria-based Petersen Health Care, the company that owns Bloomington Rehab. The lawsuit accuses of facility of gross negligence for not taking steps to protect Cowans-Hill from COVID exposure. The lawsuit also references nine prior health citations against Bloomington Rehab over the last decade.

Shore said the problems linked to Bloomington Rehab can be found at nursing homes across the country, arguing too many put profits ahead of patient care.

“You don’t see outbreaks in hospitals. You see them in nursing homes and you have to ask yourself why is that?” Shore said. “The answer is because they are not doing what they are supposed to be doing. They are not staffing and they are not using their resources appropriately.”

Petersen Health Care declined to comment on the lawsuit. A spokesperson said the company takes all appropriate safety measures.

Nursing home workers do the best they can to keep themselves and the people in their care safe, but they are often understaffed and overwhelmed, according to an advocate for long-term care facility residents.

Angie Baker is with the East Central Illinois Area Agency on Agency. She serves as the regional long-term care ombudsman for McLean and 14 other counties.

“Staffing I’m sure has been an issue,” said Baker.

She said many facilities struggle with high employee turnover and low pay is just one factor. She said the pandemic has made the problem worse.

“Is it a more visible problem now with COVID? Potentially, but those sentiments have been expressed in many areas for a long time.”

Baker said calls to her office haven't been excessive and most COVID calls were early in the pandemic. Families wanted to see their loved one and she helped to facilitate that when possible, but she said generally people just have questions.

Doug Rutter portrait
Credit Luther Oaks
Luther Oaks Executive Director Doug Rutter says communication is key to easing COVID concerns among residents and families.

Doug Rutter, executive director at Luther Oaks senior living community in Bloomington, said keeping residents and the families informed is the best way to ease concerns.

“The biggest thing that we did right was transparent and frequent communication,” Rutter said.

For the first five months of the pandemic, Rutter held a daily video conference call for everyone to see.

Crystal Biddle at Sugar Creek Alzheimer's Center said transparency provides assurance. That's why she sent that letter giving specifics about how far COVID had penetrated into the facility. She said that at least gives them a fighting chance.

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Eric Stock is the News Director at WGLT. You can contact Eric at ejstoc1@ilstu.edu.
Edith began her career as a reporter with The DeWitt County Observer, a weekly newspaper in Clinton. From 2007 to June 2019, Edith covered crime and legal issues for The Pantagraph, a daily newspaper in Bloomington, Illinois. She previously worked as a correspondent for The Pantagraph covering courts and local government issues in central Illinois.