At least a dozen skilled nursing facilities across the state could soon be emptied of their residents and converted to treatment centers for COVID-19 patients to take pressure off nearby hospitals.
The first such transition is underway in Worcester, where officials on Saturday began relocating 147 residents from Beaumont Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Center and into a number of other eldercare facilities in Central Massachusetts. Officials there hope to finish the moves by Wednesday and the nursing home will be repurposed for coronavirus recovery soon after.
It’s an unusual, complex move that underscores the immense scale of a crisis that threatens to overwhelm Massachusetts hospitals. And it’s expected to happen at a number of nursing homes around the state in the coming weeks as the number of coronavirus cases continues to rise.
“These measures are being taken to ensure capacity at acute care hospitals to address the anticipated surge in demand in coming weeks,” Marylou Sudders, the state secretary of health and human services, wrote in a letter to skilled nursing facilities Friday. “We understand this is not an easy thing to ask residents, families and nursing facilities to do.”
State and industry officials are working to identify other sites ― both operating nursing homes and recently closed ones ― to handle an influx of patients. Unlike hotels or university dorms, licensed nursing homes have trained medical staff and equipment, such as oxygen, that can help patients recover without filling hospital beds badly needed to serve patients with more severe symptoms. Other states have moved recovering COVID patients from hospitals to nursing facilities where they risk spreading the virus to the general population, something Massachusetts health officials are hoping to avoid.
Still, it’s a complicated maneuver. Nursing home residents are by definition a vulnerable population and moving them to new facilities on short notice is risky. Salmon Health & Retirement, which owns the Beaumont center, plans to move about 50 residents to sister facilities it operates in Westborough and Northbridge, while the rest will go to other skilled nursing facilities in the area that have excess capacity.
“We have plenty of bed availability in Worcester, so they’re going to stay local,” said company president Matt Salmon, who also said the move would help keep current residents separate from new patients recovering from coronavirus. “I was scared to death that were going to have infected or recently infected patients coming back into the building to commingle with healthy residents.”
Family members of several Beaumont residents — who said they haven’t been able to visit the facility for about two weeks — said Saturday that the move happened very fast and with virtually no communication from the nursing home.
Peter Nelson, whose mother is in her late 80s and has lived in a Beaumont memory care unit for about two years, said he first learned she would be moving from a video Salmon posted on Facebook Friday afternoon. Nearly 24 hours later, Nelson still had no idea where exactly his mother would be going, or when, or if she had already been moved.
“There’s a right way and a wrong way to do things in a situation like this,” he said. “It’s not hard to understand. The right thing is to reach out to every family before you start moving people around.”
Salmon acknowledged that some families were unhappy, and CEO Matt Salmon apologized “from the bottom of my heart.” But if this is going to happen more, the state must put better notification procedures in place, Nelson said.
“We’re just the tip of the iceberg,” he said. “We won’t be the last.”
Indeed, Tara Gregorio, president of the Massachusetts Senior Care Association, a trade group for more than 350 nursing homes in the state, said her members are talking with state health officials about what other moves might make sense.
Existing nursing homes may be easier to set up as recovery centers because they’re licensed and have a staff and infrastructure in place. But they’re also looking at recently shuttered facilities that could be quickly adapted. Staffing would likely involve a mix of existing nurses, temp agencies and hospital workers who’ve been furloughed from elective surgery departments that are now shut down.
As for the hospitals this is designed to help, a spokesman for UMass Memorial Health Care said they appreciate the sacrifices Beaumont and its residents are making. As of Saturday, the three-hospital system is already treating 32 confirmed COVID19 cases, with 45 more patients under investigation, and expects those numbers to grow rapidly. Any extra space neighboring facilities can offer will help in their coming fight.
“We understand that this is asking a lot of the residents and of the organization,” the hospital said in a statement. “But we do so for good reason. This virus is upon us and we need every available resource to preserve life in the region.”