Written by Tim Rowland for Sun Community News on September 14, 2020

ELIZABETHTOWN | Essex County supervisors were informed Monday that the federal government will provide assistance with a Covid-19 outbreak at the Essex Center nursing home this summer, which has claimed 11 lives and resulted in nearly 100 infections among residents, employees and contacts of employees in the community.

Supervisors Chair Shaun Gillilland said he was told by Rep. Elise Stefanik Sunday evening (Sept. 13) that a Task Force Strike Team would begin work Sept. 14.

Stefanik’s office confirmed the news in an afternoon press release. “The Strike Team will help staff and management at the hard-hit facility in creating a plan to reduce further transmission among residents,” the release stated. Task Force Strike Teams have deployed to 60 facilities in 16 states to-date.

The state has authority over nursing homes, and has itself been involved with the Essex Center crisis. It was not immediately clear whether the state and federal authorities would be working together or separately.

Gillilland said in this case the CMS “will come in and identify what problems there are on significant nursing home issues.”

In a related matter, the supervisors agreed to contribute $50,000 to a coalition led by the Trudeau Institute and Adirondack Health to develop rapid Covid testing capabilities that could have results within 48 hours. Gillilland said he hopes this will encourage other North Country counties to contribute as well. Delayed testing results contributed heavily to the Essex Center outbreak.

The federal attention comes amid rising frustrations among town officials who feel they are not getting the full story from nursing home administrators, and that the information they do receive clashes with what they are being told by employees.

“When 15 people come into your office and tell you the same exact thing makes you think there’s some validity to it,” said Lewis Supervisor James Monty.

Nursing home administrators have blamed the outbreak on lengthy testing turnaround times that allowed the virus to spread for two weeks before it was detected. But employees have told supervisors of other breeches, such as failure to supply and use PPE and inadequate staffing. “Who’s assuring that protocols are being followed? Monty asked.

The Essex Center receives one star, or “much below average” in its overall rating on the Medicare.gov website, which has deepened concerns about its level of care. Administrators contend that the star rating system is flawed and based on outdated information.

But one employee contacted by the Sun said that the family atmosphere that pervaded when the facility was owned by the county — which sold it in 2012 — is gone. “We’re so extremely understaffed it isn’t funny,” the employee said. “I always knew something really bad was going to happen, but I always thought I would be out of there by then.”

Another employee speaking on the condition of anonymity said that when state investigators arrived they would be kept away from the staff by administrators. Contract employees being brought in from outside were tested, but put right to work before the results were back, the employee said.

Supervisors said they have heard similar stories. “Someone needs to get a handle on this or it’s going to get worse, if it can get worse,” said Moriah Supervisor Tom Scozzafava. “To me it’s window dressing that the administration has been doing over there, and somebody needs to be held accountable.”

But other reviews have been better. Essex County Health Department Director Linda Beers told supervisors that a local businessman who lost his brother to Covid at the Essex Center felt the care was good.

She said the Essex Center is working hard to right the ship. “Short of them closing doors they are trying to work diligently to meet all the guidelines,” she said. “(And) having CMS walk through those doors is a huge pressure” to improve.

Regarding employees who feel their concerns are not being met, Beers said there are state hotlines they can call and make reports anonymously without fear of reprisal. And while the county health department does not have authority over nursing homes, she said it has been offering all the help it can.

Beers said she has seen reason for optimism. “They have turned the page,” she said. “They have a new director of nursing coming in, and they are really working hard to fix whatever issues there were over there.”

But the North Country’s problems with testing are not limited to the Essex Center, Gillilland said, making faster testing essential. “It’s going to get a lot worse when you start having Covid coming through the colleges and schools,” he said. “And the North Country is in the back seat.”

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