Stafford Springs nursing home is now one of the largest clusters of COVID-19 cases in the state, after employee tests positive

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By Dave Altimari and Daniela Altimari Hartford Courant |March 23, 2020

A health care worker at a Stafford Springs nursing home where two patients have died tested positive Monday for the coronavirus, bringing the total there to nine. It is now one of the largest clusters of COVID-19 cases in the state, and it’s amid those who are the most vulnerable to it.

Meanwhile, a woman who is a patient at a nursing home in Sharon has also tested positive for COVID-19 and is being isolated at the facility.

Both of the facilities are owned by the same company — Athena Health Care Systems.

The Evergreen Health Care Center in Stafford Springs has eight patients who have tested positive for COVID-19 and all are being isolated at the facility. The health care worker who tested positive hasn’t been to work since March 17, when she was sent home, according to Tim Brown, communications director for Athena.

Brown said the employee could have had contact with one of the two male patients who died over the weekend. Both men were in the short-term rehabilitation wing of the nursing home.

“We are working with state health officials to map out where this employee was working and who they came in contact with,” Brown said.

DPH officials visited Evergreen more than a week ago after the first case of COVID-19 was reported there, but haven’t been back since.

“We are watching that home closely,” DPH’s Barbara Cass said Monday.

Cass, the chief of DPH’s Facility Licensing and Investigations Section, visited Evergreen after the first positive test to review their infection protocols, interview staff and to tour the facility. No one from DPH has been back there since, although there have been several telephone meetings with nursing home administrators and the local health department.

“They had adequate supplies, plenty of [personal protective equipment] for the staff and no one was in a communal setting,” Cass said.

DPH has not offered to test the remaining 171 patients at the facility. DPH spokesman Av Harris said it’s not possible because the state is trying to limit testing to only instances where signs of the virus are noticeable. A handful of other patients and staff have been tested, but the results aren’t back yet.

“We just don’t have the ability to have everyone there get tested,” Harris said, citing looming shortages of swabs and the reagent needed to carry out the tests.

State officials have warned for weeks that one of their biggest fears is the virus getting into nursing homes, where there are elderly patients who are more likely to die from the virus. They are all aware of the 35 deaths at a Life Care Center nursing facility in Kirkland, Wash.

With nine confirmed cases, Evergreen is one of the largest clusters of cases in Connecticut. The largest is from a Westport party that was attended by 40 or more people. In the state’s town-by-town data of COVID-19 cases, tiny Stafford Springs has as many positive cases as New Haven and almost as many as Bridgeport and Hartford.

The first Evergreen patient who died was an 88-year-old man who had been at the facility for only one week — from March 3 to 10 — and had been in another hospital previously. The second man who died was an 83-year-old Tolland man who had been at the facility since mid-January.

Both men were in the short-term unit and were cared for by the same staff. What is unclear is if the man who had only been in the facility for a week brought the virus into the facility with him or if he was infected there. Brown said DPH is tracing his movements prior to entering the facility and after leaving it.

Several of the patients and staff tested so far either worked in the short-term area or were kitchen staff that delivered meals.

The nursing home did a deep clean of the facility after the initial positive test was announced and took other steps to ensure patients’ safety, including taking the temperature of employees before and after their shifts, Brown said.

“We will now make sure that all employees wear personal protective equipment when dealing with any of our patients going forward,” Brown said. Staff had been wearing PPEs when dealing with isolated patients.

Brown said 13 employees who were isolated after the first case was discovered have been cleared to return to work again.

Athena Health Care Systems also owns the Sharon Health Care Center, where a long-term patient has tested positive for COVID-19. The woman has been quarantined at the facility, as has her roommate.

Athena released a statement to the families of patients in the Sharon facility when they announced the positive test:

“Based on CDC and DPH guidance, no other residents and staff have been tested, at this point, as no one else is displaying any signs and symptoms that would indicate the need for testing. We have taken other immediate steps to protect the health and safety of our residents and staff, including quarantining the resident to a private room. The patient’s roommate has also been placed in a private room and is being monitored as well, with added precautions in place.”