Chris Nicolini, and his wife, Gail, pose for a picture in a sitting area at Brentwood of Hobart, where Chris has resided in its memory care unit since August. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, Gail hasn't been able to physically visit her husband in more than a month and hopes restrictions are lifted soon.(Provided by Gail Nicolini / HANDOUT)
Chris Nicolini, and his wife, Gail, pose for a picture in a sitting area at Brentwood of Hobart, where Chris has resided in its memory care unit since August. Because of COVID-19 restrictions, Gail hasn't been able to physically visit her husband in more than a month and hopes restrictions are lifted soon.(Provided by Gail Nicolini / HANDOUT)
Meredith Colias-Pete and Michelle L. Quinn, Post-Tribune

Since COVID-19 shut down visiting at nursing homes, many families have been scrambling for information, which can be easily missed from facilities, or left to look on social media for answers as Indiana declines to publicly name where residents and staff are getting sick.

Michelle Wilcox, of Portage, said she received word that her father, who lives in Dyer Nursing and Rehabilitation in Dyer, tested positive for COVID-19 after first testing negative when he’d gotten sick in March. The nursing home didn’t tell her, though; the news came from her brother, she said. And the only reason her dad knew that he was sick, she said, was because another COVID-19 patient was moved into his room.

After posting her concerns in a social media group devoted to COVID-19 support, two different employees reached out to her privately with news that shook her. One of the messages, of which Wilcox provided to the Post-Tribune, said Dyer had 19 positive COVID-19 patients on its nursing side, and the person who sent the message was about to return to work after being down with the virus.

The second message warned Wilcox to check on her dad every day, which she has. She said he’s doing better and that the home has since contacted her stepmom, but she remains concerned.

“We weren’t able to get any answers from the nursing home, and if the whole place is infected, I want him out of there,” Wilcox said. “My dad has health issues, and we’re upset because we weren't being told anything.”

Messages left at Dyer Rehab were not immediately returned.

State refuses to add nursing home information

Indiana is alone in surrounding states with its refusal as Illinois, Michigan, Kentucky and Ohio are publicly disclosing per facility COVID-19 cases and deaths.

“I will not,” Gov. Eric Holcomb said April 24. “And the reason is because we respect private business; that nursing home that is operating under our regulations.”

About one-third of Indiana deaths have occurred in nursing homes, officials said, with 1,467 cases confirmed in 148 facilities and 260 deaths in 85 facilities last week, the most recent data released each Monday. Indiana has about 550 licensed long-term care facilities, including around 50 in Lake and Porter counties.

So far, Lake County has reported 245 positive cases in nursing homes and 48 deaths, Health Officer Chandana Vavilala said Friday. Positive cases include 164 residents and 81 staff. That information is collected by the county health department daily by noon, she said.

Right now, the county is asking for around 8,000 testing kits for nursing homes, she said. Ideally, more nursing homes could become more “self sufficient” in getting test kits independently to help contain the spread earlier. Asymptomatic residents and staff need to be reached, she said.

Many nursing homes acted early to shut down visitors, proactively call in state testing “strike” teams and make sure positive cases are isolated in separate wings, she said. The county looks at what it can do to help, facing similar testing and supply shortages. The county health department is looking to start up its own drive-through testing next week.

“I look at the numbers every day thinking what more we can do constantly,” Vavilala said of cases.

Hamilton County offers information

Hamilton County, near Indianapolis, said it would soon start releasing nursing homes reported COVID-19 deaths every Monday. For now, Lake County doesn’t have plans to follow, Vavilala said.

“We want to emphasize the nursing homes to be more transparent with the families,” she said. “It is going to make the families feel better. They will have a better idea on how to support the nursing homes in terms of need.

“If it continues to be a problem, we may need to do it,” she said.

Elsewhere, the Gary Health Department said last week South Shore Health and Rehabilitation Center, 353 Tyler St., reported three deaths and 14 cases, including three hospitalized, while Aperion Care Tolleston Park, 2350 Taft St., had 25 cases including two hospitalized, Health Department Executive Director Veronica Collins Ellis said.

Seven staff and three long-term care residents have tested positive for COVID-19, Porter County Health Administrator Letty Zepeda said Friday.

Facilities respond

Gert Kingtson’s family celebrated her 90th birthday April 24 outside the lobby of Majestic Care St. Anthony – only they didn’t get to see her.

The virus had infiltrated two of the home’s units within a week after being virus-free since mid-March, and as such, patients are now confined to their rooms, her daughter, Mary Tomczak said.

They tried having a virtual party – first with an I-Pad and then, when that didn’t work, an I-Phone – but Gert didn’t really understand what was going on, Tomczak said.

The home notified the family that Kingston is running a fever and having trouble with her oxygen levels – not unusual since she has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, Tomczak said, but frightening, nonetheless.

“We think (St. Anthony has) done a good job. It’s been over a month since they shut down and the virus is inevitable because people from the outside still come in to work,” Tomczak said. “It’s just the not being with her that’s killing us. When my dad died, he was alone in the garage, so I have always said that I’ll be damned if my mom’s going to be alone, too. But here we are. It’s a nightmare.”

Another chain, Symphony Health Network said one patient who tested positive at its Chesterton facility later died in a hospital, while two staff have tested positive. Its Crown Point facility had three staff cases, while its Dyer facility had 14 patients confirmed and five staff cases, officials said.

It has been pushing universal testing at all its nursing homes, said Natalie Bauer Luce, executive vice president of Culloton + Bauer Luce, a public relations firm Symphony hired.

A representative from St. Anthony Home said he would email a statement, which did not arrive by press time.

Indiana has issued new guidelines requiring nursing homes and long-term care facilities to designate one staff member as a liaison for questions on how many cases, deaths there, how they are tackling staff shortages, and steps (i.e. like isolating patients) taken to prevent further spread. Facilities are also have to give automated daily updates on cases, deaths to family representatives.

Last month, the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said it would require nursing homes to report cases and deaths directly to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Calling nursing homes ground zero of the coronavirus crisis, federal officials said April 20 they plan to start tracking and publicly sharing information on infections and deaths in such facilities to help spot trends and early signs the virus is spreading in communities.

Indiana Long Term Care Ombudsman head Lynn Clough told media outlets its per facility information should be publicly released.

“Knowing that a facility, for example, has 12 positive cases at least lets you know what’s going on in that facility,” she told an Indianapolis TV station, “and the facility can hopefully try to share how they’re trying to mitigate the outbreak of that disease to other parts of that facility.”

AARP Indiana State Director Sarah Waddle said recently they support what the state decides to do - in this case to keep per facility data private.

“Everyone’s state is a little different in how they operate,” she said. “Obviously, if people were having issues, we want to hear.”

By contrast, AARP Illinois pushed for that information to become public.

“In order for public policy people and health care experts to know what’s going on, why would we not have that information accessible, available and public?” AARP Illinois Director Bob Gallo told the Chicago Tribune.

Meanwhile, families wait, while the stresses they often endure over loved ones under nursing home quarantine are innumerable, many say.

Gail Nicolini, of Merrillville, hasn’t seen her husband – former Bishop Noll Institute coach and Andrean Athletic Director Chris Nicolini – in more than a month, and the virus isn’t what worries her, although that of course is top-of-mind for everyone these days.

Nicolini, who prior to the quarantine often visited her 73-year-old husband at Brentwood of Hobart, worries that her husband’s Alzheimer’s disease will get worse as they’re unable to connect.

Nicolini also praised Brentwood with the care they’ve taken in keeping her informed of the home’s COVID-19 status, which was zero patients as of April 23.

“Is he going to forget who I am, who his kids are, if we can’t be in there to see him?” she said through tears. “I just can’t stop worrying about him, and it doesn’t get any easier. Sometimes I drive over there, anyway, and I end up crying in my car.

“I’m willing to wear anything they give me if I can see him.”

Indiana’s long term care ombudsman can be contacted at 1-800-622-4484 or longtermcareombudsman@ombudsman.in.gov. Indiana is providing an additional email for families at familyoutreach@isdh.in.gov.

The Associated Press and Chicago Tribune contributed.

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