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New COVID-positive patients arrive at SHCC

Updated: April 22, 10:00 a.m.

SHARON — Sharon Health Care Center’s (SHCC) first day as a COVID-19 recovery facility was Thursday, April 16. 

An exhausted Sawyer Thornton, the health care center’s administrator, reported on Friday evening, April 17, that the centers 88 beds were quickly filling up with patients who no longer needed hospital care for COVID-19 but who were still testing positive. 

Most of the patients, she said, have come from St. Francis Hospital in Hartford. Some referrals are coming from Danbury Hospital.

In theory, patients can come from Sharon Hospital when they are recovering, but as of Friday they had not. The hospital is across the street from the health care center and they have a working relationship but are not affiliated. 

Sharon Hospital is owned by Nuvance. The Nuvance system includes the four hospitals in the Health Quest system; three of those hospitals are in New York State and the fourth is Sharon Hospital. Nuvance also owns the Western Connecticut Health Network, with three hospitals in Connecticut. 

Sharon Health Care Center is owned by Athena Health Care Systems,  which is based in Farmington, Conn., and owns 23 nursing homes in Connecticut and 31 others elsewhere in New England.

SHCC can not accept patients from New York state as a surge recovery center.

Athena asked by state to help

A press release from Athena spokesman Tim Brown stressed that Athena was asked by the state of Connecticut to make some  of its properties available to be COVID recovery centers, as part of Gov. Ned Lamont’s “medical surge” plan.

Many Sharon residents have expressed unhappiness with the plan (see related story this page by Leila Hawken). They have expressed concern that the COVID patients and their caregivers will spread the disease in their town. They have also said they feel that Sharon Health Care long-term residents should not be moved to COVID-negative facilities to make room for the patients who are recovering. 

The Athena facilities

The recovery centers are needed because patients —especially the elderly — who no longer need to be on ventilators and no longer need intensive hospital care can not return to their nursing homes until they test negative twice in a 24-hour period. 

Those recovering patients were in limbo and had no place to go. The state made a plan with Athena to turn three of its nursing homes into recovery centers. Sharon is the first to accept the patients.

“Athena’s facility in Bridgeport, Northbridge Health Care Center, will be ready to accept recovering acute care COVID-19 patients on Monday [April 20], providing much needed relief to Fairfield County hospitals,” according to the Athena press release. 

“Athena also anticipates the previously vacant building in Torrington that it was asked to prepare and operate will be ready to accept patients from area hospitals as early as Tuesday.  The Torrington location is a previously shuttered nursing home that Athena and the Connecticut National Guard worked around the clock to prepare to accept patients in under two weeks.”

There is a fourth facility, in Meriden, that will possibly take the COVID-positive patients in the coming weeks as well, according to Brown, the Athena spokesman. 

“Meriden is still coming,” he said, but there has been a  delay. “It’s an old, closed Apple Rehab center that we are re-opening, hiring and outfitting to care for COVID-19-only patients. I don’t think there is a firm open date yet, just ‘soon.’” 

The Torrington location is also an old closed center, but owned by Athena, not Apple.

A fluid and evolving plan

Gov. Lamont first announced the medical surge plan involving nursing homes in mid March. The details of the plan have been changing rapidly since then. 

SHCC Administrator Sawyer Thornton said on Friday that she expected all 44 beds on the second floor of the facility to be full with COVID-positive patients in recovery by the end of the weekend. 

The original plan was for the center’s own long-term residents to remain on the ground floor. SHCC was already in a sense a COVID-recovery center, with eight COVID-positive patients.  The first COVID-positive patient in Sharon was a 57-year-old long-term SHCC resident. That woman resident has fully recovered, Thornton said. There have been no new positive cases within SHCC. 

Recommending they move

As of Friday there were 16 COVID-negative residents still at the health care center. They have been in discussion with the state Department of Public Health and the state’s long term care ombudsman. They are being encouraged to move temporarily to other Athena-owned facilities for their own safety. 

“I can’t guarantee the protection of the people who are staying” from the highly contagious virus, Thornton said. “We strongly recommend that they move.”

No one is being forced to move; however, if it is deemed necessary, the governor’s executive order does make it legal to move the residents without their consent. Once they have been moved, they can file an appeal. 

Some Sharon Health Care residents have already moved; some had actually been awaiting transfers anyway, to be at Athena facilities closer to their families that had not previously had available beds. 

If and when the remaining 16 long-term residents are moved to other facilities, their beds will be made available to the recovering COVID-positive patients, who will then eventually be able to return to their own nursing facilities. Thornton said that so far all the new arrivals at SHCC are residents of skilled nursing facilities. 

At this point, the number of new cases is decreasing in Litchfield County. That will mean a potential decrease in the need for intensive hospital care in the coming weeks. But the need for recovery facilities will increase as those patients are moved out of hospitals but can’t return to their nursing facilities.

Disappointed by her town

Thornton, who is 30 years old, has worked at SHCC for the past six years and has been its administrator since July 2019.

A native of Sharon and a graduate of Sharon Center School, she expressed disappointment at the negative response she has seen from her community to the arrival in Sharon of COVID-positive patients in recovery.

“Our staff is working very hard. This isn’t easy for us to do but we’re taking on the task of caring for these people —and we can provide great care,” she said. “So just some positive feedback from the community would be helpful. Our staff needs to be uplifted, as the hospital needs to be uplifted.

“Nobody wants to be in these hard times; but we’re the ones who are facing it head on. We did a great job with our COVID-positive patients; we have one who is recovered and will be transferred out and will come back after the crisis.

“This is my community as well. It’s nothing I want but it’s a need. Our [residents’] families have been understanding for the most part, it’s upsetting for them to see their loved ones moved, but we have to help out in this emergency.”

Sharon will be safe

Referring to town residents’ concerns that the virus will be spread by the  new arrivals at the facility, Thornton said, “COVID is not going to blow out our windows and spread to the neighbors.”

All workers at the health care center have been “trained and re trained” in the proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE).

“When our staff goes home, they strip off their work clothes and take showers right away. They are not going to the grocery store after work in their PPE.”

Larry Santilli, Athena’s president, said in the press release on April 16 that, “The COVID-19 pandemic has presented incredible and unprecedented challenges to the state. I am glad that Athena Health Care Systems is in a position to answer the state’s call for assistance at this critical time.

“The true heroes in this battle are the amazing employees in these nursing homes, whom we are blessed to have. Through opening these centers to COVID-only patients, our employees are contributing to saving lives across the state.”

All Sharon Health Care workers have been receiving increased “hazard pay” for their work during the coronavirus crisis.

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