25 Investigates: Inside a Chelmsford nursing home that battled back from COVID-19 crisis

CHELMSFORD, Mass. — For the first time, a local nursing home is peeling back the curtain, inviting 25 Investigates to visit the facility to see how they recovered after a crisis.

25 investigates continues to look at the state of COVID-19 inside long term care facilities. And really, it’s all due to the numbers. There have been 8,030 COVID-19 deaths inside nursing homes in Massachusetts alone. They account for more than half of all COVID deaths in the state, or roughly 57%. Link:

“It’s a family operation, said Shirley Eaton. “I’ve been here for 52 years.”

Eaton, who owns Sunny Acres Nursing Home and Rehabilitation Center in Chelmsford says 2020 was, by far, the hardest year yet.

The home had a brush with COVID-19 in the spring. But, 25 Investigates first reported on the Chelmsford facility last fall, when a deadly virus outbreak swept through.

So, 2021 has ushered in a series of changes, which we saw firsthand. Two 25 Investigates producers, Jason Solowski and Patricia Alulema visited the home Tuesday. They, like all visitors, were immediately rapid tested for COVID-19.

That day, residents and staff were getting their second doses of the vaccine, including certified nurse’s assistant, Gina Vincent.

“I’m trusting that it’s the right thing to do,” Vincent said. “It feels like the right thing to do.”

Vincent says she had a mild case of COVID-19 in April. But, she says what she endured during the October outbreak was worse.

“It has been really difficult, losing residents, losing people that we have really close to,” she said.

“We still can’t really pin down how it came, you know. And once it came here, it just spread like wildfire,” said Eaton.

Before they could catch up, 10 residents had died, dozens more residents and staffers were sick. State and federal inspectors were so concerned they temporarily dubbed the home an “immediate jeopardy” halting any new admissions for weeks.

“We’ve never had that before,” Eaton said. And, she wanted to ensure it never happened again.

Eaton brought in a crisis recovery team led by Joe Veno with Commonwealth Senior Living. His group is rooting out the underlying issues that allowed COVID-19 to spread unchecked.

“Shirley’s priorities were the safety of her residents and staff while maintaining achieving compliance with the state regs. And, that was what we set out to do,” Veno said. “So we really wanted to stabilize infection control. Everything from room cohorting, moving patients during outbreak hand hygiene, PPE.”

One of the biggest red flags from a Sunny Acres inspection survey was a comment by the now former home administrator. When asked about the decision to not separate COVID positive and negative patients, the administrator told inspectors in October it was ‘fruitless’ and the “exposed residents were likely to get covid-19 eventually.”

Veno says leadership is key in a crisis.

After working remotely during much of the crisis because of her own health issues, Shirley Eaton is now back in every day, working to get back on track and reflecting on the chaotic time.

“There’s no state support,” she said. “Everything changed on a daily basis as to what you were supposed to do. Yeah, there was some guidance. But, it was very confusing.”

But, she’s moving forward, hiring a new, experienced infection control nurse. And, Eaton told us as of this week 80% of staff and residents combined have been vaccinated against COVID-19 allowing her team to breathe a sigh of relief.

But even with the vaccine, strict protocols will remain in place for the foreseeable future.

“Nothing is going to change nothing,” Eaton said.

“The resources have been spent and the time has been invested,” Veno said.

Eaton says her facility is prepared to take on COVID-19 and anything else that could come their way.

“I want them to know that, you know, we can take really good care of the residents” Eaton said. “And, we have done it and we’ll keep doing it.

Sunny Acres no longer has the immediate jeopardy designation and has been admitting new residents for the last six weeks.

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