The Covid-19 pandemic, which killed about 6,000 nursing home residents in New York through May, is again spreading rapidly in nursing homes in Erie County.
Three weeks ago, when the county Health Department for the first time released detailed data on the extent of Covid-19 spread in county nursing homes, three facilities reported a positive test rate of 5% or more. Two weeks ago, five homes met that threshold.
Last week, according to the most recent data, the number was nine.
"It's distressing, but it's not surprising," said Richard J. Mollot, executive director of the New York City-based Long Term Care Community Coalition.
A total of 28 residents in the 40-bed nursing home were infected with the coronavirus for the week ending last Saturday, according to the Erie County Health Department.
Nursing homes were at the center of the new coronavirus outbreak in the spring, both locally and nationally. The virus spread widely, with devastating effect, among residents who were vulnerable because of their age and health conditions.
Nursing home officials say they are better prepared today as Covid-19 cases soar in the community, with greater access to masks, gloves and other protective gear and more testing of residents and staff.
But the latest surge in cases even has spread to nursing homes that avoided the virus earlier this year.
Last week, Canterbury Woods' skilled-nursing facility reported its first-ever cases of Covid-19. The five cases confirmed last week have risen to 14 as of Wednesday, with one death, a representative said.
"It underscores how serious the virus can be and how quickly things can turn," said Phil Pantano, a spokesman for Canterbury Woods.
Where the outbreaks are
The Erie County Health Department began providing site-specific information on the Covid-19 outbreak within nursing homes at the direction of the County Legislature.
The first report, covering the week ending Nov. 14, listed three homes, with Autumn View Health Care Facility in Hamburg reporting 51 cases and a 22.2% positive rate, both the highest such figures released.
The report for the week ending Nov. 21 listed five homes, with the Eden Rehabilitation and Nursing Center seeing 70% of its residents test positive for the virus and the Garden Gate Health Care Facility in Cheektowaga reporting 34 cases. Garden Gate's positive rate, 18.5%, was lower because it is vastly larger than the Eden center, which had 28 cases among 40 beds.
The most recent report, for the week that ended Saturday, listed nine homes, ranging from the 6.3% positive rate at Brothers of Mercy Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Clarence to 30% at the Eden nursing home.
The raw case count ranged from five at Canterbury Woods in Amherst to 30 each at the Absolut Care of Aurora Park in East Aurora and GreenField Health and Rehabilitation Center in Lancaster.
Officials from the nursing homes listed by the county all defended their operations and said keeping residents and staff safe was their top priority.
"We appreciate our residents' families' confidence in our ability to prevent any continued spread within our facility," the Eden facility said in a statement. "We are in very close communication with local and state health officials to ensure we are taking the appropriate steps at this time."
The operators blamed the rise in cases on the spread within the wider community.
"Our teams have been diligent in terms of infection control, and testing has been an important tool. However, asymptomatic spread continues to be a challenge for all healthcare providers," emailed Chuck Hayes, a spokesman for the Elderwood chain, which has nursing homes in Williamsville and Cheektowaga on the most recent county list.
Canterbury Woods had not reported any cases since the Covid-19 pandemic began, but this changed last week.
"It's been a minute-to-minute battle for eight months," Pantano said.
At least nine new cases were reported there this week, adding to the five confirmed the week before. Pantano said 12 of the 14 remain at Canterbury Woods in a separate wing and have or mild symptoms or are asymptomatic.
One resident was hospitalized, but is doing well and is expected to return soon, while one died at the beginning of this week. Pantano said the home has traced the first case back to a resident who tested positive after returning from a hospital visit.
Vaccines spark hope
Advocates for nursing home residents say it is no surprise that numbers are rising again at nursing homes. This is happening even though operators had a chance to learn lessons from the devastating initial outbreak, and there are more PPEs and more consistent testing available now than in the spring.
Some of the conditions that allow Covid-19 to spread within nursing homes predate the pandemic, the advocates said, such as low staffing and poor infection controls.
Mollot said it's wrong to blame nursing home workers who are overworked, underpaid and insufficiently trained in the proper use of PPEs. The responsibility, he said, lies with nursing home owners and state and federal regulators.
"It's failure at every level that results in the spread of the coronavirus," he said.
Cuomo called vaccine distribution the "biggest governmental operation since World War II."
Mollot and Lindsay Heckler worry about the coming weeks and months, with public health experts predicting further spread of the virus and nursing home residents unable to see family visitors, dine communally with friends or have close contact with staff.
"People are dying from loneliness," said Heckler, supervising attorney at the Center for Elder Law and Justice in Buffalo.
But she is hopeful for the future as Covid-19 vaccines near approval and federal officials say some of the first doses will go to nursing home residents and staff because of their vulnerability to the virus.
"It definitely gives that light at the end of the tunnel," she said.