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Alarming COVID Spread Takes Toll On Families, Staff

Chautauqua Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Dunkirk has reported 12 deaths from COVID-19 since late December.

An abrasion on the toe of a resident at Chautauqua Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Dunkirk seemed harmless enough in early September. But when further medical treatment was delayed, and the ailment became wet gangrene, it led to a fatal outcome.

Michele Starwalt-Woods, who told the OBSERVER of her cousin’s experience over the last four months, expressed both sadness and frustration in the outcome. “I was not notified until the first week in November that there was a wound,” she wrote. “My cousin declined pre-optive tests in order to determine if he is a candidate for amputation, and told the Palliative care team at Sisters Hospital that he wanted to, ‘Go home and die.'”

Starwalt-Woods’ cousin, unfortunately, would be one of at least 40 patients who contracted COVID-19 at the facility. He passed away on Jan. 6.

Her family was not able to be with her cousin at the time of death, as no one from the staff called to advise Starwalt-Woods of respiratory distress and worsening of symptoms. It was a heartbreaking plight — one that may be similar to hundreds of thousands of other state residents: because of COVID-19, visitors to nursing homes have been restricted.

Those family members, who were part of everyday lives one year ago, can now only be seen at limited times in windows or through videos of Facetime. What’s added to the stress of these situations, for many with relatives at the Chautauqua Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, is what has turned out to be a very deadly outbreak.

Since late December, the facility reported 12 patients in the facility have died due to the virus.

It is the largest number of fatalities tied to the infection at all the facilities in the county.

Somehow around the Christmas and New Year holiday, COVID-19 found its way into the care center. With family not allowed, many who have spoken with the OBSERVER believe it came from a worker who did not know they were infected.

Once inside, the virus has percolated at alarming levels. Adding to the frustrations earlier this month were the family members desperately seeking information but lacking a personal touch.

“Robocalls are impersonal, they do not deliver a feeling of empathy, compassion, or confidence,” Starwalt-Woods said. “One robocall in particular from (the center), which identified procedures being taken in regards to PPE and COVID was almost snippy, a bit terse, and sounded forced.

“Robocalls provide limited information, but not detailed and transparent information. As a family member, it is important to me to know what floors, wings, departments have staff that have tested positive and how many patients are now at risk, because of said individuals who tested positive for COVID. Robocalls do not give the exact number of staff in quarantine, or the number of staff who have recovered. Robocalls from (the facility) do not state what steps are being taken to ensure there is adequate staff per shift, as residents have complained to family members there is often only one aide on the entire floor. Families desire specific information because we have little to no first hand knowledge of daily care.”

Other residents with family at the facility have sounded similar concerns. “In a robocall … (Jan. 2), I was told the facility had their first resident die due to COVID-19 when in reality, it was the third death! Why are we being lied to?” wrote Jody Falkner of Dunkirk to the OBSERVER earlier this month. “Family members of residents have a right to know what protocols are in place to ensure proper care of our loved ones who live at the Chautauqua Nursing & Rehabilitation Center while staff continues to test positive. We have a right to know the accurate number of how many staff and residents are testing positive.”

In the last week, however, family members did indicate more sensitivity and information had been communicated by the facility. Those sentiments seem to match the most recent statement from Dawn Hirsch, spokeswoman for VestraCare, owner of the Dunkirk care center.

“As the world has witnessed, this virus does not discriminate,” Harsch wrote on Thursday. “For nearly a year, our team has worked tirelessly to control the spread of the virus and keep it out of our facility. Unfortunately, as statistics have shown, this virus is particularly dangerous to the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.”

Harsch noted while the state Health Department found the facility to be “deficiency free,” it has been an emotional roller coaster for all involved. “The residents in our care are like family to us, and each loss is devastating to our team. … Our employees work hard daily to protect the health and safety of themselves, the residents and their own family members.”

Those employees are suffering as well. When the OBSERVER and Post-Journal first reported on the cluster at the care center, at least 45 employees has tested positive or were quarantined. This led to a crisis at times with staffing levels at the location.

Other nursing homes in Chautauqua County and Warren County, Pa., have also been touched with high COVID numbers. In the fall, clusters were reported at Tanglewood while more recent cases were in Heritage and a Frewsburg home. Warren County, through last week, reported more than 30 deaths and about 200 total cases at their facilities.

Vaccinations are taking place at all locations, but the virus has left a devastating path for all involved. That led Starwalt-Woods to offer a note on the dedication she has witnessed through the last 10 months.

“Oftentimes when communication breaks down, families begin to focus on the vast negativity, problems, and innate concerns,” she said. “There are staff members … who have been angels in our lives for a very long time, when COVID wasn’t plaguing the world. These (workers) remain compassionate, helpful, and informative to this very day and our family is thankful for them.”

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