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, as health officials reported more than 1,000 new cases and nine additional deaths from the contagion.
Massachusetts now has 4,257 confirmed coronavirus cases after the largest one-day increase since the outbreak began, according to the state Department of Public Health. Forty-four people have died.
As hospitals brace for a surge of patients, the first transition for nursing homes is underway in Worcester, where officials on Saturday began relocating 147 residents from Beaumont Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Center 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.
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 we 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.”
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.
The preparations came as the number of COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts increased by more than 31 percent since Friday, when 3,240 cases were reported, and nine more people died. Officials described the victims as a woman in her 60s from Essex County; a Suffolk County woman in her 80s; a man in his 80s from Worcester County; a Norfolk County woman in her 80s; a man in his 70s from Hampden County; a Hampden county man in his 80s; a Norfolk County man in his 80s; a woman in her 50s in Worcester County; and a woman in her 90s from Hampden County.
Two Woburn women, 89 and 92, respectively, had died from the virus, the city’s mayor said.
“Both were beloved mothers and grandmothers and will be deeply missed by their families,” Scott Galvin said.
More than 35,000 people have been tested for the disease, an increase of about 19 percent over Friday’s total.
President Trump, meanwhile, approved a disaster declaration for Massachusetts that allows the Federal Emergency Management Agency to reimburse 75 percent of costs incurred by local governments, state agencies, and certain nonprofit organizations that respond to the crisis.
Governor Charlie Baker, speaking at a Red Cross center in Dedham, urged healthy people to donate blood to address a severe shortage brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.
The nation’s blood supply relies heavily on individual donations, which have fallen off dramatically since social distancing restrictions were put into place. Hundreds of drives have been canceled.
“This really is a way for people to save lives," Baker said. "It’s pretty much as simple as that.”
The city of Boston also opened a testing site for first responders at Suffolk Downs. The site is operated by the Boston Public Health Commission and the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center.
“Boston’s first responders are on the front lines of this public health crisis, and we will continue to do everything we can as a city to keep all residents safe and healthy,” Mayor Martin Walsh said.
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