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State-Run Queens Nursing Home Failed to Follow Virus Safety Measures, Staff Say

The New York State Veterans’ Home in St Albans, Queens.
The New York State Veterans’ Home in St Albans, Queens.
Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

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A Queens veterans nursing home run by the state Department of Health has been violating protocols set by the department itself that are intended to keep patients and staff safe from coronavirus, multiple staffers told THE CITY.

This includes not separating roommates when only one was suspected of having COVID-19, and failing to isolate those infected in a separate section of the facility with a dedicated team of staff members.

And like their counterparts at private nursing homes, workers at the 250-bed New York State Veterans’ Home in St. Albans say protective gear has been in short supply and at times absent — with recommended N95 masks handed out just once in late March and expected to last for weeks.

Only last week were supplies replenished, they said.

Meanwhile, the staffers say, the home had suffered resident deaths totaling at least twice or even three times the official tally of 19 that was publicly reported through May 1— essentially by the state Department of Health to itself.

“There was just no effort to try to even maintain any kind of minimizing transmission or anything,” said one staffer. “Nobody took it seriously.”

State Department of Health officials countered that the home has been a “leader in its response to the COVID-19 pandemic” — and that the agency is ensuring all of its coronavirus guidelines are followed.

On Tuesday, the health department released new and more detailed statistics on coronavirus fatalities in individual nursing homes across the state. They showed nine confirmed COVID fatalities at the Queens veterans’ home and another 24 presumed to be caused by the virus.

Nursing Home Woes

As the nursing home death count started rising significantly across the state in April, Gov. Andrew Cuomo began distancing his administration from direct responsibility — even though the state Department of Health licenses and inspects all 613 nursing homes in New York, and operates a few itself.

The latest tally of deaths among nursing home residents in the state was 3,087 as of Friday — with 1,893 of those deaths in New York City.

On April 22, after confronting questions about the lack of universal COVID-19 testing at nursing homes — along with shortages of staffing and protective gear — Cuomo made clear the facilities were private entities responsible for their own performance.

It’s not our job” to help nursing homes secure protective gear for their workers, the governor said, even though the state government had pitched in at times with those efforts.

Questions, meanwhile, intensified about a March 25 state Department of Health advisory that required nursing homes to take in COVID-positive patients from hospitals who were in stable condition, given how vulnerable the elderly population is to the coronavirus.

Cuomo said any nursing home that couldn’t handle such patients could have simply said so and reached out to the state health department for help.

“The state does not run the nursing home … the state regulates the nursing home, but it’s a private corporation,” Cuomo said at the April 22 news conference. “And if they’re not doing the job they’re paid to do and they’re violating state regulations, then that’s a different issue — then they should lose their license. That’s how this relationship works.”

He added: “The state is not going to come in and do their job for them.”

‘Why Were We Not Informed’

The New York State Veterans’ Home is one of five veterans nursing homes in New York state that are owned and operated by the state Department of Health — which also regulates them.

At the St. Albans site, most of the units have 40 beds and are named for a type of tree, such as pine, redwood, maple and spruce. Veterans and their dependents who require skilled nursing services are eligible for admission.

Lori Ettlinger Gross says her father, Jerry Ettlinger, who served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War in the early 1950s, had been a resident of the home for about eight years.

Like all nursing homes in New York, the facility shut its doors to outside visitors on March 13 — leaving families clamoring for information about their loved ones.

It wasn’t until April 2 that Ettlinger Gross’ mother got a phone call from a staff member at the home notifying her that Ettlinger needed to be hospitalized. At the time, the family had no idea that the 89-year-old had even been sick.

“Why were we not informed that he was ill prior to the day that they called my mother to say he required hospitalization?” said Ettlinger Gross.

The family, on their own, moved Ettlinger to Northwell Health’s Long Island Jewish Medical Center in Forest Hills, Queens, on April 3.

Ettlinger Gross said that at the hospital her father tested positive for COVID-19 and was diagnosed with pneumonia in both lungs. More concerningly, the doctors said he had arrived “severely, severely” dehydrated — raising questions about her father’s care at the home.

Six days later, he died. Ettlinger Gross said her father’s roommate passed away from COVID-19 as well.

“I’m not saying I blame them for his death. I don’t,” she said of the nursing home. “I just feel there was a better way to handle these things.”

State Department of Health officials declined comment on specific residents because of privacy laws.

But they said the facility had designated specific staff members to serve as primary contacts for families, and to provide them with frequent written updates. The officials didn’t say when those measures were implemented.

One family member of a resident at the facility reached by THE CITY commended the nursing home staff for keeping them aware of the residents’ day-to-day status.

No Social Distancing

Staff members say the hallmark of the response to coronavirus by the veterans’ home administrators has been a lack of urgency — where protective measures were implemented either too late or not at all, and rarely enforced.

Multiple workers spoke to THE CITY about the facility’s response to the crisis, but they insisted on anonymity because the facility’s administrator, Neville Goldson, distributed a memo forbidding employees from answering questions either from the media or from elected officials.

An April 14 memo forbidding workers at the New York State Veterans' Home in St. Albans from fielding questions from both the media and elected officials.
An April 14 memo forbidding workers at the New York State Veterans’ Home in St. Albans from fielding questions from the media or elected officials.
Obtained by THE CITY

Staffers said the administration had initially designated the poplar unit — an area typically dedicated to sub-acute care for residents in need of rehabilitation or rest before entering the general population — to serve as an isolation hold for COVID patients.

But they said that plan proved unsuccessful early and was abandoned — in part because of staff shortages similar to those that have handcuffed private nursing homes in responding to the crisis.

Instead, patients in the poplar unit were scattered throughout the nursing home, and that section eventually morphed into a temporary hold for bodies destined for a refrigeration truck newly parked behind the facility, according to staff.

The unit is currently closed, they said. Staffers from the poplar unit were then assigned to float among the remaining units, a move that increased the odds for the virus to spread among uninfected residents.

The veterans’ home was also slow to implement social distancing measures detailed in state Department of Health advisories — including a March 13 recommendation to cancel group dining and recreational activities, the staffers said.

It wasn’t until March 20 that the home sent a notice to families that it was limiting, but not abolishing, such gatherings.

“Activities will be conducted on the units and as one-on-one individual basis or in small numbers that maintain proper distance from each other,” the missive said. “Communal dining in the dining rooms will be modified and limited with social distancing practices implemented.”

A week later, a new message to families on state Department of Health letterhead said no residents in the facility had been confirmed to have COVID-19, but that three were being tested.

Only then, on March 27, did the home restrict residents from leaving the facility except for medical necessities. The note said recreation activities were still continuing within each of the units.

Lockdown, of Sorts

On April 3 — the day Jerry Ettlinger was taken to the hospital — nursing home administrators for the first time began to segregate units from one another.

“The Facility is now experiencing a number of positive COVID-19 cases for residents and staff,” the message said that day. “As a precaution, we have quarantined all units and restricted all residents to their own rooms where feasible.”

Throughout the whole crisis, however, COVID-positive patients were not being systematically moved out of the rooms they shared with residents who were believed to be virus-free, staff members said.

This includes one worker who observed a COVID-19 resident sharing a room with a man who was not showing any symptoms of the virus, but who was at high risk of succumbing to it because he had diabetes and a respiratory condition.

The veterans’ home had empty single rooms at the time, the worker said.

“They left them in the rooms with the ones that were not [positive] because their thought was, ‘Well, they’re all going to get it anyway,’” the worker added. “The whole thing is just disgusting. I was so incensed and angry about it.”

The New York State Veterans’ Home in St Albans, Queens.
The New York State Veterans’ Home.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

On April 15, an employee filed a public complaint about the nursing home’s inability to enforce social distancing requirements.

The NYPD responded and found no violations of the six-foot distancing rules, including within rooms, but relayed the complaint to a doctor on site, according to a source with access to the 311 system.

State Department of Health officials maintain that the facility followed the required regulations by ensuring social distancing during meal service, canceling all group activities, restricting visitors and implementing health screenings of staff on every shift.

They did not say when each of those measures were implemented, and didn’t respond directly to the reports that COVID-positive or presumed COVID patients were not isolated in a dedicated area or separated from their asymptomatic roommates.

Jill Montag, a state health department spokesperson, said the agency launched an unannounced in-person inspection of the site this past Wednesday and found no practices in conflict with state guidelines — including for infection control.

“Ensuring the residents of our Veterans’ Homes are protected is a priority during the current COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “That’s why we acted quickly to implement infection control measures, restrict visitations, conduct environmental cleaning and do outreach to residents and families.”

Goldson, the facility’s administrator, didn’t respond to an email seeking comment.

Lives Lost

Last month’s 311 complaint about the veterans’ home also disputed the accuracy of the facility’s public death count — an issue raised by every staff member who spoke to THE CITY.

It’s part of widespread complaints among staff and family members at nursing homes over the accuracy of the number of deaths publicly released throughout the crisis.

Last week, NY1 reported that one upper Manhattan nursing home had understated its death count by at least 85 residents.

The lack of COVID testing at nursing homes has meant management has wiggle room when identifying residents believed to have died from COVID-19, because many sick residents’ positive status was never confirmed.

In response to concerns by family members about a lack of communication from nursing homes, Cuomo signed executive orders on April 16 and 17 mandating that the facilities disclose positive COVID cases and deaths to family members within 24 hours. Each violation is punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 per day.

Around that time, the state first began asking individual nursing homes to also account for deaths of residents that occurred outside of the facility moving forward — particularly at hospitals.

But documents posted on the NYS Veterans’ Home’s website show a discrepancy between what’s been reported to families and what’s being reported publicly by the state Department of Health.

In a series of eight letters posted on its website from April 21 to May 4, the veterans’ home revealed that a cumulative total of nine residents had succumbed to the virus in the 24-hour period preceding each note.

Yet from April 20 until May 1, the nursing home’s reported tally of COVID-19 deaths posted publicly by the state Department of Health remained unchanged at 19.

The updated total of 33 through May 3 was posted by the department on May 5.

State health department officials did not respond to a request seeking the number of residents who lived at the veterans’ home at the beginning of the month from March to May, saying the collection and verification process is ongoing.

Staff members said there have been numerous deaths beyond the 19 that have gone uncounted — an omission that adds to the pain of losing some residents who had earned endearing nicknames from their caretakers.

“These were not just residents,” said one worker. “We knew these residents — they were like family.”

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