'Heartbreaking' report shows virus ravaging NY nursing homes

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — The despair wrought on nursing homes by the coronavirus was laid bare Friday in a state survey identifying numerous New York facilities where multiple patients died over the past few weeks.

Nineteen of the state's nursing homes reported 20 or more deaths linked to the pandemic, the survey said.

One Brooklyn home, the Cobble Hill Health Center, was listed as having 55 deaths. Officials at the facility, which has more than 300 beds located in a 19th-century former hospital in a tony section of Brooklyn, didn't immediately return a call seeking comment.

Four homes, in the Bronx, Queens and Staten Island, were listed as having 40 or more deaths.

“These have been surreal times, and we are suffering, as is everybody else,” said Dr. Roy Goldberg, medical director at Kings Harbor Multicare Center, a 720-bed home which reported 45 fatalities.

RELATED: Take a look at the impact of the coronavirus in the United States:

“Every death is heartbreaking,” he said.

The survey's release came after days of news media reports about homes so stricken by the virus that bodies had to be stacked inside storage rooms while families struggled to get information about isolated loved ones.

The list was far from complete. It was based on a survey sent by the state asking for details. Nursing homes had until 2 p.m. Thursday to respond.

“We only know what they tell us," Gov. Andrew Cuomo said.

Connecticut released a similar list Thursday, reporting that eight nursing homes had at least 10 residents die.

Through Tuesday, at least 2,477 nursing home patients have been killed by the virus in New York, according to state figures. That amounts to about one in five of the state’s virus-related fatalities. In Connecticut, nursing home residents account for 375 of the state's 971 virus deaths.

Until this week, officials in several states had declined to identify nursing homes with deadly outbreaks, saying patients deserved privacy or citing challenges in determining whether some extremely frail patients had died of the virus, or other causes.

Many nursing home administrators also declined to release information, leading Cuomo to say this week that the state would begin requiring homes to inform patients and their families within 24 hours if a resident got the virus or died.

Chris Laxton, executive director of the The Society for Post-Acute and Long-Term Care Medicine, applauded the state for releasing the data. But he believes the spread of COVID-19 and related deaths are underreported in nursing homes and assisted living communities.

"Growth in both cases and deaths is to be expected, even as the surge begins to level off in the community and in hospitals,” Laxton said. “We continue to be in urgent need of PPE, especially gowns, test kits, and surge staff, to limit staff from traveling between buildings and risking additional spread.”

Nursing homes have been known since the earliest days of the outbreak as a likely trouble spot. A home in Washington state lost 43 residents early in the virus’s spread into the country.

Yet even with that early warning, many nursing homes remained without adequate supplies of personal protective equipment. Testing for residents and staff remains spotty, at best.

Federal officials in mid-March banned visitors, halted group activities and ordered mandatory screening of workers for respiratory symptoms, but by then the virus had quietly spread widely.

Kings Harbor's medical director, Goldberg, said staff members there created two dedicated COVID-19 units to treat infected patients and followed “every department of health and CDC recommendation and regulation.”

“Obtaining PPE has always been a struggle,” he added, “but we’ve always stayed one step ahead.”

New York state's health commissioner, Howard Zucker, said the state is providing enough personal protective equipment for nursing homes and helping with staffing.

“We’re working with each individual nursing home to address that. We contact them and if there’s a need for PPE ... we have stockpiles."

Some nursing homes have disclosed information voluntarily that differed from the numbers put out by the state Friday.

The state survey listed 10 deaths at the Montgomery Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, about 50 miles north of New York City, but facility Vice President Vincent Maniscalco said 21 residents have died recently. Eight of those patients, he said, had symptoms consistent with the virus but died prior to being tested.

“It’s been a very trying time for the staff, to lose residents they care for day in and day out,” Maniscalco said.

With visitors barred from nursing homes to try to keep the infection out, many of those patients have died with only the home's workers to comfort them.

“When somebody passes away, they celebrate a resident’s life,” Maniscalco said.

Outbreaks killed 45 at a nursing home in suburban Richmond, Virginia, and 22 at a home in central Indiana. County officials in northern New Jersey said Thursday that at least 26 patients had died at a nursing home in Andover.

An Associated Press report found infections were continuing to find their way into nursing homes because screening staff for a fever or questioning them about symptoms didn’t catch people who were infected but asymptomatic.