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Vaccine, proposed legislation bring hope to state nursing home residents

Help is on the way for residents of the state's 209 nursing homes, many of whom have had restricted visitation and socialization activities since the coronavirus pandemic began in March 2020.

Nursing home residents and staff are scheduled to receive their first dose of COVID-19 vaccine by the end of the week, and their future well-being will be on the agenda during the legislative session that begins Wednesday.

Residents of long-term care facilities have accounted for more than 60% of the state's COVID-19-related deaths. The most recent figures available from the state Department of Public Health indicate the nursing home death toll was 3,532 as of Dec. 29. The current nursing home census is 17,551 residents.

A working group of legislators, long-term care industry experts and advocates is scrambling to propose legislation to improve nursing home residents' chances of survival during the current and future pandemics. The Nursing Home and Assisted Living Oversight Working Group is on target to meet its Jan. 27 deadline. Though it doesn't expect to address all of the issues during the current legislative session, the committee will be proposing some reforms.

"We are looking at legislation that will address everything from staff levels to (Medicaid) reimbursement, which is a huge issue, to infection control policies, to whether the state needs to make investments on infrastructure improvements," said state Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, a member of the working group and ranking member of the General Assembly's Public Health Committee.

The state's nursing homes receive Medicaid reimbursement, at about $235 a day, for about 75% of their residents. The rate hasn't increased in over 15 years, according to Somers, who said there are no funds to upgrade air handling systems at older facilities or reconfigure the buildings to be safer, with private rooms or different wings with their own entrances and exits.  

"We have been looking at nursing homes that fared well vs. those that didn't fare well," Somers said.

The deficiencies of the nursing home industry have come into sharper focus due to the pandemic.

"We have seen the ravages on that population and how difficult, once the virus is in the facility, it is to control it," Somers said. "Especially when you have an Alzheimer's unit where people can't distance or won't wear masks."   

Since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's National Healthcare Safety Network began reporting numbers in June, 3,350 Connecticut nursing home staff members have been infected and three have died, according to the state. Currently, 358 nursing home staff members statewide are infected, according to the latest figures from the state.

Though many of southeastern Connecticut nursing homes were COVID-19-free at the end of December, the Groton Regency had 24 residents and seven staff members who were infected with the coronavirus and New London's Harbor Village facility reported 20 resident cases of COVID-19 and one death.

The Greentree Manor nursing home in Waterford, designated a COVID-19 recovery facility, reported 13 coronavirus-related deaths for the week of Dec. 23 to 29. In Old Saybrook, the Gladeview Rehabilitation and Healthcare facility was struggling with an outbreak, reporting 55 COVID-19 cases and three deaths in the last week of December.

New London's Martha Marx, a nurse who works with the Visiting Nurse Association of Southeastern Connecticut, said she can't wait to receive her first dose of the vaccine on Thursday. She said she has been treating more COVID-19 patients lately and worries about contracting the coronavirus and spreading it to other patients.

"I can't even tell you how excited I am," she said about her vaccine appointment. "We were so scared back in April, May and June. I can't tell you the anxiety. We didn't have the testing. We didn't have so many things."

Marx says she goes overboard with her personal protective equipment. "But you always think, 'Did I get that one little speck of pixie dust (virus) on my hand?'"

On Tuesday afternoon, Lawrence + Memorial Hospital in New London reported it had 39 COVID-19 patients, while Westerly Hospital had nine. An L+M spokeswoman, Fiona Phelan, said L+M had reached a new high Monday morning, with 46 COVID-19 patients prior to several being discharged.

Backus Hospital in Norwich reported it had 47 COVID-19 patients as of Tuesday morning, the most it's had since the pandemic began. "We are definitely seeing the post-holiday spike," a Backus spokeswoman, Emily Perkins, wrote in an email.

Not everyone in the health care industry and general population is excited about the vaccine, which is not mandatory since the medication has received only emergency authorization from the Food & Drug Administration.

Somers, chairwoman of the Communications Subcommittee of the state's Vaccine Advisory Task Force, said it is important to provide the public with accurate information, and that she's received many submitted questions prior to an educational forum on the vaccine on a Facebook Live Town Hall held at 7 p.m. Tuesday.

Many of the questions came from people who wondered when they would be eligible for the vaccine, and Somers said she hoped that Gov. Ned Lamont would be announcing plans for the next phase of the vaccine this week.

Day Staff Writer Brian Hallenbeck contributed to this report.

k.florin@theday.com

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