Families with loved ones living at Heritage Green Nursing Home suffered an emotional whiplash this week when its COVID-19 outbreak was declared over, just to be reinstated days later.
Three new cases of the novel coronavirus were confirmed and a new outbreak declared on May 1.
“You get that little bit of hope and then they just yank the rug out from underneath of you,” said Shirley Wetherup, whose 84-year-old mother Barb Vogt lives on the first floor of the Stoney Creek home.
Wetherup says she can’t understand why the outbreak would be declared over even though residents and staff were still being tested for the virus, arguing the guidelines for when an outbreak can be considered ended should be changed.
“They are playing with the emotions and mental health of so many people … staff, residents and family members,” she added.
Hamilton Public Health says the outbreak was “re-declared” after three residents tested positive during provincially-mandated testing for all staff and residents instead of just those with symptoms of the virus.
The update says all three people were asymptomatic and adds there are currently “no symptomatic” staff or residents at the home.
On Sunday Dr. Ninh Tran, an associate medical officer of health for the city, said all resident testing is now complete and tests of all staff members should be finished this week.
The first outbreak was determined to be at its “end point” even though testing was ongoing because no new cases had been found for 14 days, he explained.
“In general outbreaks have a specific definition or criteria … for COVID it is 14 days so that was clearly over earlier.”
While public health staff were “hopeful” no more cases would be found, Tran said they knew it was possible.
Staff at the home did not respond to requests for comment but, in an email sent to families Tuesday and shared with CBC, administrator Scott Kozachenko stated the home asked public health not to declare the outbreak over until testing was complete.
“We did not want to be declared ‘out’ of Outbreak only to find we would be back ‘in’ Outbreak, if we discovered a positive case,” he explained.
“Finding a positive result for a resident or staff would be so disappointing and discouraging to everyone, we didn’t want to put anyone through this – not our [residents], their families or our staff.”
A follow up email sent by Heritage Green management Friday confirmed exactly what he feared, “regretfully” informing residents of the new positive tests and pledging to keep them updated on any future developments.
In response to concerns about communication, Tran said public health will be meeting with staff at the home this week to talk about any lessons that might have been learned when it comes to announcing the end of an outbreak at facilities where testing is still taking place.
“As we learn through different experiences we will make any adjustments we need to make in future to get even better in terms of providing clear communications and ensuring expectations are appropriate,” said the doctor.
The new cases bring the total number of people living at Heritage Green who have tested positive for COVID-19 to 15. Three staff members have also tested positive. Four residents have died.
Outbreaks are also ongoing at five other long-term care and retirement homes:
- Dundurn Place Care Centre: Six resident cases and three staff.
- St. Joseph’s Villa: One resident case.
- Grace Villa: One staff case.
- St. Elizabeth’s Villa: One resident and one staff case.
- Cardinal Retirement Residence: 47 resident cases and 18 staff.
Wetherup says her mother is known at the home as “The Angel” because of the joy she brings by visiting and caring for others.
An avid painter, she never fails to greet new residents with one of her works depicting a bird or flower and before the pandemic would spend part of her day sitting beside those in palliative care to keep them company.
“My mother has this thing that nobody should die alone,” said Wetherup. “That’s just the way she is.”
When she was told the first outbreak was over, the 84-year-old left her room for the first time in weeks to visit a friend.
Her daughter felt a jolt of optimism too, but with the home back in outbreak again both women have slipped into an emotional slump.
Mother’s Day is just a week away, but Wetherup said she’s almost at a loss for how to mark it. Suddenly the prospect of being able to visit and hug her mom again seems very far off.
“It’s rather bleak,” she said.