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For now, Sharon Health Care residents can remain in place

SHARON — Plans for the transfer of COVID-19 patients to Sharon Health Care Center and other facilities owned by Athena Health Care Systems were released on Thursday afternoon, April 9.

The plans have been shifting and changing rapidly.

And since then, questions have been raised about whether nursing home residents must consent to be moved to a special facility or if they can be moved without consent, to either a COVID positive or negative facility. On Thursday, a statement was released by Mairead Painter, the state’s long-term care ombudsman.

“We have been told that any moves would be on a voluntary basis and IF there were any need for an involuntary move, under the Governor’s Executive order, it would only be under limited circumstances and in consultation with the Medical Director, the Hospital, the Long-Term Care Ombudsman and DPH,” she said in her statement.

Under normal circumstances, the move will be discussed by the patient and his or her family with the doctor who is making the recommendation.

Painter also said that, “The nursing homes that are designated as specialized COVID-19 positive homes may have residents who have tested negative and wish to move to a traditional nursing home or unit that is ‘COVID-19 unknown.’ Residents who have tested COVID-19 negative and have elected to transfer will go to a quarantined section of the traditional nursing home for 14 days. Again, all transfers will be recommended or in consultation with the doctor and moves will be coordinated by the care team at your nursing home.”

Athena spokesman Tim Brown said on Thursday that for the most part, patients will be transferred to a facility that is close to their nursing home and/or hospital. Sharon Health Care, for example, is most likely to take patients from Sharon Hospital.

On Sunday, April 13, Sharon First Selectman Brent Colley said in a mass email to town residents that he believes “that all non-COVID residents would be transferred elsewhere,  i.e. our residents, some of whom call Sharon Health Care Center home, will be removed and placed somewhere else in the state.”

At press time, Brown said he believes this is not correct and that Sharon Health Care residents will remain in place, at least for now, and be segregated by floors. About eight of the facility’s residents were already positive for COVID-19 at press time and several others were awaiting the results of their tests. The facility has 88 beds, 66 of which were filled as of the end of last week.

On Wednesday, April 8, Gov. Ned Lamont had said that Athena Health Care Systems, which owns 23 nursing homes in Connecticut, including Sharon Health Care Center, and 31 others in Massachusetts and New England, would become recovery centers for nursing home patients who had tested positive for COVID-19 but had recovered, but could not return yet to their own nursing home.

Intermediary recovery

On Thursday afternoon, April 9, Athena spokesman Brown shared details on the plan, in which four nursing homes owned by Athena would accept patients who were still positive for COVID-19 but no longer needed acute care.

Nursing home residents who are still positive for COVID-19 have not been allowed back into their facilities if they are still testing positive; this will give them an intermediary place to go until they are fully recovered, Brown explained.

The four facilities managed by Athena that will become COVID-19 recovery centers are Sharon Health Care,which is across the street from Sharon Hospital but not affiliated with it; Northbridge Health Care in Bridgeport; and two facilities, in Meriden and Torrington, that had closed but will now reopen just to take the COVID-19 patients.

Athena had anticipated the need for those two facilities to be opened again several weeks ago, Brown said. They are now ready to accept patients and are just waiting for final approval from the state.

Sharon Health Care is also in the process of preparing for a possible influx of new patients. Because that facility is already up and running, the changes are primarily the moving of healthy residents from the second floor to the first floor. COVID-19-positive patients will now reside on the building’s second floor.

Few details on that first case

Sharon Health Care had the first person in the Northwest Corner to test positive for the coronavirus. The 57-year-old woman patient was healthy enough that she could remain at the center, where she was segregated into a private room. She is not fully recovered yet but is largely symptom-free at this point, according to Sawyer Thornton, who is the facility’s administrator.

At press time, Sharon Health Care had eight COVID-positive patients, she said. Several other patients were awaiting test results but she said the number of positive cases seems to have peaked about a week ago.

“They have all been doing well and are being treated ‘in place,’” she said.

The four Athena facilities together will make about 500 beds available to COVID patients who no longer need acute hospital care. This will free up beds in hospitals for those who need a higher level of medical care. Some but not all will be nursing home patients.

Brown said he could not say how COVID-19 first came into Sharon Health Care, because of Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act regulations (HIPAA). He said the public can feel confident that the coronavirus was not brought into the Sharon facility by any employees.

He could only say in general that many nursing home patients leave their facilities for specialized care such as dialysis; and that there are short-term patients  who come to the health care center from hospitals and might not have known they were positive because they were not showing symptoms when they were transferred to Sharon Health Care.

So far, Geer Village in North Canaan and Noble Horizons in Salisbury are not reporting any cases.

No extra fees charged

Patients who are brought to Sharon Health Care for their recovery period will not have to pay for their stay, Brown said. The state government has said it will give funds to the Athena facilities to cover some of their costs.

Brown said that Sharon Health Care employees are already receiving what they are calling “hazard pay.”

“Everyone is receiving it on a per-shift basis,” Brown said. “It’s a small way to recognize them for the hard work they’re doing. It’s a tough job on a regular day, let alone adding this in.”

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