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COVID-19 situation in Forsyth County long-term care facilities murky
Cumming Health and Rehab, on Castleberry Road, was reported to have 47 cases of COVID-19 by the Georgia Department of Public Health. Leaders at the facility say it has had 12 cases. - photo by Ben Hendren

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UPDATE (April 17, 7:35 p.m.): The Georgia Department of Community Health rolled out its first daily report of statewide COVID-19 cases and deaths in long-term care facilities Friday, April 17, at 7 p.m.

Here's a look at cases and deaths documented from facilities in Forsyth County.

Jerry Patton, the administrator of Cumming Health and Rehab, a nursing facility on Castleberry Road, saw the Georgia Department of Public Health’s latest report on confirmed COVID-19 cases in long-term care facilities and noticed Cumming Health and Rehab supposedly had 47.

That would have been the third most in Georgia. It also would have meant nearly all of the facility’s 55 current residents were infected.

But that’s not the case, according to Patton. Cumming Health and Rehab has had 12 total confirmed cases with no deaths.

“We just want the information to be as accurate as possible,” Patton said. “We don’t want to be depicted as one of the trouble facilities.”

For Patton, the discrepancy highlights an information problem about the virus situation in Georgia’s long-term care facilities, an industry that has received intense scrutiny ever since a nursing home in Washington state became the first hotspot for COVID-19 in the U.S.

With an elderly population living in close proximity, many of which are in frail health, health experts have called long-term care facilities “accelerators” for COVID-19. While most people experience mild symptoms, the disease can be fatal, especially in the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions.

But information about the scope of the coronavirus in long-term care facilities nationwide has been scarce. Georgia first released numbers of positive cases in long-term care facilities April 3 and has been updating it weekly.

Still, the information hasn’t always been accurate. Dr. Katherine Toomey, the DPH’s commissioner, admitted as much during Gov. Brian Kemp’s most recent press briefing.

“What I struggle with is not the lack of transparency but recognizing much of our data is not as accurate as we’d like it to be,” Toomey said.

That’s been true in Forsyth County, local administrators say.

For instance, in its second weekly update, the DPH reported that Chestnut Ridge Nursing & Rehabilitation, a facility on Samaritan Drive in Cumming, had eight COVID-19 cases. But according to Melinda Huff, the facility’s administrator, Chestnut Ridge has had eight people tested for the virus--seven residents and one staff member--but none have been positive.

Huff said she notified the DPH. Chestnut Ridge wasn’t included in the department’s most recent update April 14.

That update also documented single cases at The Mann House, on Majors Road, and The Villas at Canterfield, off Atlanta Highway. Leaders at both facilities confirmed they have had positive cases to the Forsyth County News. 

The Mann House had a resident go to the hospital March 12 for “a number of different core morbidities” and test positive for the virus four days later, founder Charles Mann told the FCN. They are unsure how and where the resident contracted the virus, he said, and no other residents or staff have been symptomatic since.

After they learned of the positive case in a resident, The Villas and its staff of nearly 30 underwent a 14-day lock-in, executive director Katie Hrinda said. The resident who tested positive has recovered, Hrinda said. No other residents or staff have tested positive.

Patton says he’s spoken to other administrators at long-term care facilities in Georgia that point out inaccuracies in the DPH’s report.

“We just want to be as transparent as we can,” Patton said. 

Signage at Cumming Health and Rehab, on Castleberry Road. - photo by Ben Hendren

Cumming Health and Rehab currently has eight residents with the virus, Patton said. Following gradual improvements to Georgia’s testing capacity and expanded testing criteria, they tested the remaining residents in their facility this week.

Early on, Patton said, they relied on Northside Hospital Forsyth for testing, which could only conduct five a day. Results could take up to a week to return. Patton sent a daily report of those results to the District 2 office of the Department of Public Health, as well as to the Healthcare Facility Regulation Division of the Georgia Department of Community Health.

When Patton saw the DPH’s latest report, and the apparent error, he notified the Georgia Health Care Association (GHCA), a nonprofit association of long-term care facilities throughout the state. Patton said the GHCA contacted the governor’s office. Cumming Health and Rehab still showed 47 cases as of Friday afternoon, but Patton said that number should be corrected in the DPH’s next update.

Indeed, according to Tony Marshall, president and CEO of the GHCA, they’ve been working with various state partners to develop a real-time report of confirmed COVID-19 cases in long-term care facilities. That’s set to go live on the Department of Community Health website Friday, April 17, at 7 p.m.

The department said data is subject to change, but it will be updated Monday through Friday at 7 p.m. with cases and deaths from facilities with at least 25 beds as of 2 p.m. each reporting day.

“This real-time report is going to be much more up to date than the DPH report,” Marshall said. “I can’t address any specific errors. But there were errors in reporting and inaccuracies, and we believe all of those errors that we saw are probably corrected now in the [Department of Community Health] report.”

Patton expected Cumming Health and Rehab to be impacted by COVID-19.

“I’ve been told that it wasn’t a matter of if, it was a matter of when, because it’s so contagious,” Patton said.

The first positive case was in a resident who came for rehabilitation. The individual later tested positive while at an assisted living center. 

That was even after Cumming Health and Rehab implemented safety measures before the White House first rolled out social distancing guidelines March 16 and Gov. Brian Kemp ordered those most at-risk to shelter in place. They followed best practices, like increased handwashing and sanitizing high-contact surfaces. They restricted access to all non-essential visitors, including family members. The staff of nearly 120 started using personal protective equipment. They designated one wing of the facility for COVID-19 patients.

“We just basically treated everyone in the building like they had it,” Patton said.

Like other long-term care facilities around the state, Cumming Health and Rehab has also received help from the Georgia National Guard. The Guardsmen have visited twice already, each time with six-member crews. One member uses a disinfectant fogger in empty rooms and offices and in common areas. Two Guardsmen mop up the residue from the fogger and disinfect the floors. Other Guardsmen follow with bottles of spray disinfectant and wipe down handrails. 

Pattons expects the National Guard to make weekly visits to Cumming Health and Rehab. In the meantime, he’s trying to follow guidelines from the state for best practices in long-term care facilities and take care of his staff.

“They’re scared, naturally,” Patton said. “But they have really stepped up to the plate.”