After facing calls for an investigation into COVID-19 deaths at family-owned nursing homes last March, Rohm Services Corp. CEO Robert Hurlbut is being hailed as a hero by area health care officials.
Speaking to reporters Monday, UR Medicine chief medical officer Michael Apostolakos M.D. showered compliments on Hurlbut, profusely thanking the owner and operator of 13 area skilled nursing facilities for agreeing to take over care of COVID patients who until now could not be sent back to the assisted living facilities and nursing homes they had come from.
“UR Medicine is very grateful to Bob Hurlbut,” says Apostolakos, calling the nursing home operator, who serves on the University of Rochester Medical Center’s governing board, “a great partner.”
Rochester Regional Health chief medical officer Robert Mayo M.D. echoes Apostolakos.
“Rochester Regional Health is very pleased with … the support of Mr. Hurlbut in advancing his nursing facilities to accept COVID-positive nursing home patients,” Mayo says.
Under a mid-May order promulgated by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, nursing home and assisted living facility residents admitted to area hospitals for COVID treatment could not be transferred back to the facilities they came from while they still tested positive for the virus.
That order created a backlog of patients who were still COVID-positive but no longer transmitting the virus, which while still present in patients’ systems ceases to be transmittable after 21 days.
The number of such patients at any given time varies as patients test negative and new, largely recovered but still positive patients take their place. System officials say caring for patients—who but for the mid-May order could be as well or better treated in a nursing home—puts an extra strain on hospitals’ already thinly spread staffs.
Under a plan recently approved by the state Department of Health with urging from Robert Duffy, president and CEO of Greater Rochester Chamber of Commerce, Hurlbut has agreed to take COVID-positive patients from area hospitals at two Hurlbut Care Community facilities, the Shore Winds in Greece and Conesus Lake Nursing & Rehabilitation in Livonia, Livingston County.
While hospitals look to the plan as a measure that will greatly ease their staffing shortfalls, Hurlbut says transfers to skilled nursing facilities will better serve the transferees.
“I don’t blame the hospitals at all,” Hurlbut says. “But they’re set up for acute care. They aren’t meant to care for nursing home residents.”
In April, Cuomo ordered an investigation of deaths at nursing homes including Hurlbut facilities.
No charges were filed against his homes as a result of the probe, Hurlbut says. The nursing home owner largely blames Cuomo’s April order for many of the early nursing home COVID deaths. That order required nursing homes that were not yet ready to care for patients infected with the coronavirus to take COVID transfers from hospitals.
Apostolakos says UR Medicine hopes to transfer 10 to 12 COVID patients a week to the Hurlbut facilities.
Hurlbut says the number of transfers his homes will be able to take at any given time will depend on circumstances. The 48-bed Livonia nursing home is to be entirely devoted to care of recovered but still COVID-positive patients. Sixty beds in two wings of the 229-bed Greece facility are to be similarly dedicated, he says.
COVID-positive patients will remain at the Hurlbut facilities until they test negative and return to the assisted living facilities or nursing homes they came from, he says. If patients are ready to return but cannot go back to their original facilities, Hurlbut says, he will try to find space at one of his firm’s 11 other area homes.
Hill Haven Nursing Home in Webster, which is owned by Rochester Regional Health, has also agreed to accept COVID-positive transfers from hospitals. Mayo says RRH has transferred 35 COVID patients to the home over the weekend.
Meanwhile, as COVID cases continue a relentless surge, the region’s hospitals find themselves increasingly challenged to adequately staff their hospitals to care for COVID and non-COVID patients.
So far, UR Medicine and RRH are juggling the challenges posed by the rising COVID tide and the demands of more routine non-COVID care as best they can, but “this is becoming more difficult to manage,” says UR’s Apostolakos.
UR Medicine announced Monday that it is temporarily closing its Sawgrass Drive ambulatory surgery center in order to redirect staff to care for COVID patients. The Sawgrass Drive facility is one of the system’s largest ambulatory surgery sites. No other facilities are currently slated for shutdowns, Mayo says. But non-essential surgeries are also being curtailed across the system.
UR Medicine’s six area hospitals include Strong Memorial and Highland in Rochester and F.F. Thompson in Canandaigua. The five-hospital RRH system’s hospitals include Rochester General, Unity and Batavia’s United Memorial Medical Center.
Both systems are currently vaccinating hospital staff. According to the state, URMC has used 68 percent of its allocated vaccine doses. Cuomo’s office put the provider on its list of highest-performing systems. RRH, on the other hand, is among the state’s lowest performers, using 25 percent of allotted vaccine doses.
The state’s Department of Health plans to issue a “use it or lose it” regulation, Cuomo said in a briefing Jan. 4. Vaccine providers are expected to use allocated doses this week or face up to a $100,000 fine.
Going forward, these providers will need to administer doses within seven days of receipt or face fines, be disqualified from future distribution and become subject to serious sanctions if they are severely deficient. Cuomo’s goal is to expedite the vaccination process.
“I don’t want the vaccine in a freezer,” he said. “I want it in somebody’s arm.”
Between Dec. 31 and Jan. 3, Monroe County saw 2,700 new COVID cases and in a post-holiday surge, more cases are showing up daily. The county’s more than 10 percent positivity rate is the highest since the pandemic began and the numbers are still rising, Apostolakos says.
As of Jan. 4, UR Medicine’s six hospitals were caring for 479 COVID patients including 74 in intensive care units, 51 of whom are on ventilators. Slightly more than half of the systems’ COVID patients are being treated at Strong Memorial, UR Medicine’s and the region’s largest hospital.
Apostolakos says he is confident the Rochester community will again flatten the COVID curve, but as the case count continues to rise, he sees a reversal of the current trend as being at best some three weeks in the future and possibly further away.
At the current rate of infection, that could mean more than 10,000 additional cases and many new hospitalizations. How quickly a turning point comes, say the hospital officials, depends on how well area residents hew to preventive measures like masking, avoiding unnecessary trips outside the home, shunning large gatherings and social distancing.
Will Astor is Rochester Beacon senior writer. Managing editor Smriti Jacob contributed to this article.