25 Investigates: How the virus gets into nursing homes despite lockdown

BOSTON — 25 Investigates has been contacted by dozens of families concerned about loved ones in nursing homes. COVID-19 is in 159 longterm facilities in Massachusetts, according to the Department of Health, and 25 Investigates learned there are many ways the infection can enter a nursing home, even if it is on lockdown.

"They've been on lockdown for almost 30 days. I've only talked to my father two or three times," said Tanina Johnson.

Johnson's dad, a Marine veteran, lives at the Stonehedge Rehabilitation and Skilled Care Center in West Roxbury. Johnson got a call Monday informing her that two residents there had tested for COVID-19. A spokesperson told 25 Investigates the number has grown to nine residents and two staff.

“I’m just like, so nervous for my Dad, I’m concerned for the safety of his health. Um, he’s not in the best of condition. So, I’m just worried because I’m so far away,” said Johnson.

According to Stonehedge, the lockdown at the facility began on March 12, weeks before COVID-19 surfaced there, so how did the virus get in?

>> Federal investigation launched into Holyoke Soldiers’ Home stricken by virus

Stonehedge nurses also work at other longterm care facilities. Through our research, we found that is a common practice in the nursing home industry. A former Stonehedge administrator who asked us not to reveal her name spoke with us by phone.

"The majority of our nurses work at two separate facilities that had been exposed to the COVID-19 and they did relay that back to the director of nursing which in return she did not have them quarantine. What she did was allow them to continue working," she told us.

By email, a Stonehedge spokesperson told 25 Investigates the facility is "following all recommended guidelines from the CDC and the Department of Public Health."

Under current CDC guidelines, exposed health care professionals can continue to work under certain circumstances if they are not experiencing symptoms.

Another possible link in the infection chain is nursing home residents who leave for outside medical care including dialysis, chemotherapy, and even methadone appointments. Stonehedge confirms at least ten of its residents continue to visit methadone clinics.

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David Friedler from Jamaica Plain specializes in public health and is a licensed nursing home administrator.

"You just can't completely contain, create a sanitary environment in a nursing home. It's out of the question. You can do the best you can, under the best of circumstances and this isn't the best of circumstances," said Friedler.

For residents and their loved ones, the challenges are enormous and the reality is grim.

"My fear is that I don't want my father to be COVID-19 positive. I have a great concern for my dad and his health and his safety," said Johnson.

The National Guard is now doing coronavirus testing in Massachusetts nursing homes, visiting at least 80 facilities so far including Stonehedge.

25 Investigates asked Friedler for advice to give to families. He says, if possible, keep in contact with nurses in the unit where a loved one is and ask to be notified immediately about any changes in health.

>> Complete local and national coronavirus coverage here


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