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Covid-19 claims its first known nursing home worker in Erie County

Joan Neudecker hated to get sick, her daughter said, largely because it kept her from the work she loved, caring for patients at the McAuley Residence in Kenmore.

But in late April, Neudecker tested positive for Covid-19, her daughter Kathryn Kitchen said. She suspects, as her mother did, that she caught it at work.

Neudecker, a licensed practical nurse, tried to get better at her home in the Town of Tonawanda, but her condition worsened.

She died Saturday in Kenmore Mercy Hospital. She is the first nursing home worker in Erie County known to have died with Covid-19.

Neudecker was 60, with a husband, two daughters, a son and four grandchildren.

"She was a very strong woman," Kitchen said. "She spread herself thin to make everybody else happy. She always put everyone else before herself."

Kitchen said her mother should have been issued better equipment to protect her from infection. She was given a procedural mask and not the fitted N95 mask that better guards against the spread of disease.

Judging by her Facebook page, Neudecker considered it important that she and other nursing home workers have the equipment needed to protect themselves and patients from Covid-19. Among her many posts on the topic was a story about a nursing home worker in Kansas City, Mo., who fought for better protective equipment and then died, reportedly from Covid-19, days before the worker was to retire.

Neudecker posted articles about nursing homes being hard hit by the virus and tips on how people could make better masks to wear in public.

But in a private Facebook message sent after she was diagnosed with the virus, Neudecker lamented that she had been caring for residents, who were later known to have contracted Covid-19, with only a procedural mask.

"Obviously better PPE was required," she wrote.

In the run-up to Neudecker's diagnosis, the McAuley Residence had no known cases of Covid-19, so she and other staff met state and federal safety guidelines by wearing the simpler procedural mask, said JoAnn Cavanaugh, a spokeswoman for Catholic Health. It runs the McAuley Residence, a five-star nursing home, and its affiliated hospital, Kenmore Mercy. Catholic Health's policy is to give N95 masks to the staff who care for people with confirmed or suspected cases of Covid-19, she said.

While the state Health Department does not require nursing home staff to always wear the N95 mask, it does urge that N95s be worn, similar to advice from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

State Health Department spokesman Jeffrey W. Hammond said: “The department recommends, consistent with the CDC’s guidance, that facilities use N95 respirators in all health care settings unless they’re not available or the facility doesn’t have fit-tested staff, in which case a face mask is recommended.”

He said the state has distributed more than 10 million pieces of personal protective equipment, such as gowns, face shields and N95 masks, to long-term care facilities.

The Health Department, as of last week, did not track the number of nursing home workers infected with Covid-19 although the workers care for people described as among the most vulnerable to the deadly virus.

The federal government last week issued a rule requiring the nation's nursing homes and adult care facilities to report Covid-19 deaths and infections among residents and workers. On Sunday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced the state would require nursing homes to test workers twice a week.

Neudecker learned she was Covid-19 positive through a test performed at her workplace, her daughter said. Catholic Health, in a written statement defending the protective equipment it gives staff and its overall safety protocols, indicated how the test came about.

On April 25, as part of the routine screening the McAuley Residence had been performing since early March, before it was required, the facility found two residents with elevated temperatures, Catholic Health said. Those two residents tested positive for Covid-19, triggering an expanded round of testing that found more residents and even staff members with the virus, even though some had been asymptomatic, Catholic Health said.

While Catholic Health will not indicate whether Neudecker can be counted in those newly discovered cases, her daughter surmises Neudecker was among them. On April 26, she revealed that a test performed at work had come back positive, and she soon after had a sore throat and showed other symptoms, Kitchen said.

"She was trying to get better," Kitchen said. But, she said, her mother also was telling people who called with concern that her recovery was slow. When she reached out for medical advice, she was told to remain at home and rest, Kitchen said.

Just days ago, as Friday night turned to Saturday morning, Lawrence J. Neudecker called for the ambulance that brought his wife, who was unresponsive, to Kenmore Mercy. She was placed on a ventilator, her daughter said, but did not survive.

Her death certificate states the cause as a myocardial infarction – a heart attack – from septic shock due to Covid-19, Kitchen said.

Since then, Kitchen has begun a GoFundMe page to help pay for an unexpected funeral, whenever a funeral might be held. On Wednesday, the family was more than halfway toward a $5,000 goal.

In its statement, Catholic Health said it sent the McAuley residents who tested positive for Covid-19 to its St. Joseph Post-Acute Center, a nursing home in Orchard Park that opened in April to care for patients with the novel coronavirus.

Catholic Health also extended its sympathy to Neudecker's family. "She will be missed by her McAuley Residence family," Catholic Health said.

"And she will be," stressed Kitchen, "because they loved her."

News Staff Reporter Lou Michel contributed to this story. 

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