Steuben Public Health director says DOH allows infected staff to work in facilities, while locals take the lead on testing
BATH | Steuben County Public Health officials signaled a lack of cooperation from New York State Department of Health officials after they say they failed to receive ‘proactive’ responses about COVID-19 cases in county nursing homes.
“[The] New York State Department of Health is a critical partner in these efforts and we appreciate their hard work,” said Public Health Director Darlene Smith. “Everyone is stressed and stretched thin, but as the local eyes and ears on the ground, we’ve had to urge for [a] proactive response.”
Smith said 24 of the 33 deaths in Steuben County are related to three nursing homes: Hornell Gardens and Elderwood in Hornell and the Fred and Harriet Taylor Health Center in Bath. There are currently 48 active cases in those facilities.
She offered a timeline of the outbreaks Friday in an online conference with reporters.
Local officials initially requested assistance from the New York State Department of Health on April 6 and 7 after nursing homes experienced clusters of COVID-19 infections, Smith said.
A few days later, on April 8 and 9, the State Department Of Health team conducted universal testing at one of the Hornell facilities.
The state team then moved on to a nursing home in the Bath area. State health officials did an infection control assessment and deemed it “satisfactory,” according to Smith -- but then refused to conduct random swabbing.
“The common philosophy is to assume that everyone has it,” Smith said of the officials’ decision. “I think that’s why sometimes no swabbing is done or random swabbing.”
Following comprehensive testing at Hornell Gardens, 46 residents and staff members were found to be infected with COVID-19.
The biggest disconnect between county and state officials, Smith said, has been the state's willingness to allow COVID-19 positive staff, who had no symptoms, continue to work at the Hornell facility, though they were only authorized to work with COVID-19 positive residents.
“To our knowledge, there are still some that are working there,” Smith said. “Having [infected but] asymptomatic staff working in the nursing home really didn’t meet the definition of ‘isolation’ of those individuals. That’s why we were very concerned about that.”
“That’s a facility decision,” she added. “Facilities schedule their staff based on their needs.”
County officials wanted to make it clear that the decision to allow that is in the hands of state officials.
“We don’t cast judgment, but we feel it is in the public interest to know that can occur under New York State Public Health guidelines,” said County Manager Jack Wheeler.
Following outcry from the public over COVID-19 positive staff working in the Hornell nursing facility, local officials coordinated with the Department Of Health to move non-infected residents to another facility.
Local officials say they have been pleading for state guidance to better understand the decision.
“That might be a very viable option, but as locals, we end up getting the questions from residents and family -- and staff themselves,” Wheeler said. “[In my] personal opinion, I think the state needs to put out guidance [about allowing infected staff to continue working]. I think the public needs to know that.”
That’s not the only problem county officials have with the state response.
On April 15, local officials asked the Department of Health to do universal testing at a second nursing home in Hornell.
They say they got no response. Local officials, with the help of St. James Hospital and the University of Rochester, conducted their own tests and found six positive residents.
A day later, county Public Health partnered with the Fred and Harriet Taylor Health Center and Arnot Health for universal testing at that facility, which led to 16 positive results.
Wheeler said despite those concerns, communication between local and state officials is getting better.
“We wanted to share a detailed timeline of the situation in nursing homes,” he said. “With the universal testing that has been done, we feel the situation is much more stable than it was.”