Virus-free nursing home finally falls victim to COVID-19

Outbreak sickens most residents, 1/3 of staff

WEBSTER, Mass. — It is a streak that would make any long-term care facility envious.

“We have gone ten months without an outbreak, and we are now one of the last nursing homes to get this virus,” said Felicia O’Keeffe, RN, Director of Nursing at Brookside Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center in Webster. “Our first positive resident case was identified on December 22nd from a swab received on December 18th.”

That test was done on a female resident as a matter of routine. She had no symptoms of COVID-19, and, given the facility’s track-record, no one expected a positive result.

What nobody knew at the time was that two staff members had been exposed, at home, to school-age children infected with COVID-19. Because the children were asymptomatic, the parents had no reason not to come to work -- so they did -- and underwent routine COVID-19 testing, as well.

“They worked multiple shifts back to back in the four days it took to get their results,” O’Keeffe said. “They were asymptomatic for the duration of their illness. They had no idea that they had it.”

They had it, and it spread very fast through the small 81-bed facility, which is currently a bit more than half-full.

“We have 41 positive residents in our facility at this time,” said O’Keeffe. “We have currently had three resident deaths -- not all of which were related to the virus. We have six residents who are currently in the hospital seeking a higher level of care. And we have six residents who continue to remain negative in our facility.”

Additionally, 18 staff members are infected, O’Keeffe said, and three who came in from the outside to help -- two National Guard members and a phlebotomist -- also became infected.

“Nobody really has a good answer as to how we could have stopped this or prevented this,” O’Keeffe said. “Other than getting our lab results back faster.”

In fact, Brookside plans to change the lab it does business with as a result of the four-day turnarounds on what turned out to be critical COVID-19 tests.

O’Keeffe said Brookside started a regular testing protocol on staff and patients last spring before the state even mandated it.

“We’ve had enough PPE to get us through any disaster since before the pandemic officially started back in March,” she added. “We have done countless training with our staff. We have training running on TVs throughout the building all the time in case someone forgets.”

Despite the average resident age falling somewhere in the 80s, serious illness from this outbreak has been the exception, O’Keeffe said. “The majority of our residents are asymptomatic. We do have about ten who are very ill right now. who we’re watching closely.”

O’Keeffe, who’s been working 23 days straight now, said they would love to hire some nurses, part or full-time, but have had employees leave in recent months -- and contract workers from temp agencies not honor commitments.

“They agree to come in and help us and work these shifts and then right before they’re scheduled to be here they release their shift and cancel and leave us high and dry,” she said. One recent weekend, O’Keeffe said she dealt with more than 20 such call-offs.

The cruel irony is, Brookside was scheduled for its first round of COVID-19 vaccinations in ten days.

“Right now, we’re focused on the care needs,” O’Keeffe said. “We’re concerned about their skin, we’re concerned about their nutrition. We’re concerned about their multiple comorbidities that almost everyone in this building has. So, right now we’re just trying to keep them alive.”