In a rare move that is likely to be replicated throughout the country, a nursing home in Massachusetts this week is transforming itself to become the state’s first facility for treating patients with COVID-19. 

As part of an arrangement with the University of Massachusetts Medical School, the Department of Public Health and the executive offices of the Department of Health and Human Services, Beaumont Rehabilitation and Skilled Nursing Center in Worcester County is dedicating its staff and building “for the care, treatment and rehabilitation of people who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 disease,” said Matt Salmon, CEO of Salmon Health and Retirement, in a video statement on Facebook.

Providers in the state and officials in the Department of Public Health praised the move.

“Due to the anticipated surge in the need for hospital and nursing facility care over the coming weeks, the state has called on us to help, and we applaud SALMON Health & Retirement for answering the call and providing exemplary leadership during this time of crisis,” the Massachusetts Senior Care Association said in a statement.  

The state of Massachusetts, which appealed to other facilities to serve as COVID-19 sites of care, explained that those patients who have the disease and are stable but need nursing care will be transferred to Beaumont this week. 

“Transferring patients to dedicated facilities such as Beaumont, where they can continue to receive nursing facility levels of care, including oxygen, will provide acute care hospitals with the additional capacity for incoming patients who need hospital level acute care,” Marylou Sudders, secretary of the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, said in a letter.  

Salmon, who noted that residents will be moved to the facility’s sister and area facilities in Worcester by Wednesday, acknowledged the gravity of the decision and the impact it may have on residents and families.

“This, personally, has been a very, very difficult decision, and I’ve been languishing over it for a few days now because I know the amount of disruption that this is going to cause for our residents and families who trusted us to take care of their loved ones in Worcester,” Salmon said. “I can’t, in my role, think of any other solution that doesn’t put all of our seniors at risk, not just the ones in our buildings but the ones throughout the Commonwealth.”

He spoke about the need to keep COVID-19 patients out of nursing homes, which national nursing home leaders recently have been outspoken about. “I can’t see any logical reason why a skilled nursing operator would be allowed to admit  a COVID-positive resident into their building and increase the risk of that disease spreading throughout the entire community,” Salmon said in his video message.

“As a result, I feel it’s in our best interest to protect all of our residents by evacuating Beaumont at Worcester, creating a COVID-specific building that UMass Medical and St. Vincent’s Hospital can discharge COVID-positive patients to, where we can provide proper treatment for them without increasing the risk of infections among our seniors. My worst fear is having mass outbreaks in nursing homes across the state because we are required or need to take COVID-positive residents.”

The action to transform the facility into a key location in the fight against COVID-19 comes as many facilities in the state are at risk of closing and there is a serious caregiver shortage.

Leave exemptions for Family First Act

Also recently, nursing home employees are among the healthcare providers that are exempted from new leave requirements under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, the Department of Labor noted in a recent FAQ (No. 56).

The act requires certain employers to provide employees with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for issues related to COVID-19. Healthcare providers who may be exempt under the act include people who work at nursing homes and retirement facilities.

“This definition includes any individual employed by an entity that contracts with any of the above institutions, employers, or entities institutions to provide services or to maintain the operation of the facility,” the agency explained. 

The American Health Care Association / National Center for Assisted Living said it had advocated for nursing home and assisted living staff to be added in the definition of “health care provider” under the act. Senior living organizations noted the bill’s provisions could “decimate” the caregiver workforce

“To minimize the spread of the virus associated with COVID-19, the Department encourages employers to be judicious when using this definition to exempt health care providers from the provisions of the FFCRA,” the organization noted. 

In other coronavirus-related news:

•  President Donald Trump announced that federal authorities are extending its social distancing guidelines — which include avoiding gatherings in groups larger than 10 people — through April 30. Nursing homes have already been directed to cancel all group activities and communal dining under guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The president had previously said he wanted to relax the guidelines by Easter (April 12). 

•  A decontamination system that can clean respirator masks has been granted approval by the Food and Drug Administration. The Battelle CCDS Critical Care Decontamination system can be used to sanitize single-use disposable N95 masks, allowing them to be reused amid significant personal protection equipment shortages.

•  In lighter news, a Washington skilled nursing facility was the first local recipient of the “Masks 4 Millions” campaign by the Days for Girls’ organization. The facility received 200 masks, while a sister facility also received 35 masks. Meanwhile, in New York, a SNF has implemented a “Family Call Center Call-Line Service” to help family members stay connected with residents. It is but one example of numerous efforts by providers around the country to keep residents linked by video or telephonic means with the “outside” world.