N.Y.C. Jewish Nursing Homes Call Out for Help as City Launches Coronavirus Plan

Free on-site testing twice a week to patients and staff at all nursing homes in the city begin next week, but Jewish facilities are facing a dire shortage of protective equipment

Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri
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An ambulance backs up to a nursing home during an ongoing outbreak of the coronavirus disease in the Brooklyn borough of New York, U.S., April 16, 2020.
An ambulance backs up to a nursing home during an ongoing outbreak of the coronavirus disease in the Brooklyn borough of New York, U.S., April 16, 2020. Credit: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson
Danielle Ziri
Danielle Ziri

As Jewish nursing homes in New York City continue to grapple with how best to protect both residents and staff, the city has rolled out a four-part plan aiming to assist senior care facilities with key elements of the fight against COVID-19. 

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Wednesday that beginning next week, free on-site testing will be offered to patients and staff at all 169 nursing homes across the city, a major epicenter of the pandemic in the United States.

Nursing homes will be able to request the tests and get them delivered over the next two weeks.

According to the Mayor, this will allow nursing homes citywide to test up to 3,000 people per day in addition to any of their existing testing capacity that was provided by New York State.

This is the latest in a series of steps that city and state officials have taken in recent weeks to institute widespread testing in nursing homes after some administrators said they couldn’t get access to tests as the virus swept through the city. 

Earlier this month, the state ordered twice-weekly testing for all care home staffers a requirement that administrators said could be overwhelming and the White House last week recommended a round of testing for all nursing home residents and staffers.

President and CEO of the Association of Jewish Aging Services, Don Shulman welcomed the move: “Testing is critical and anything that the Mayor or the Governor can do to accelerate that and assist with that would certainly be an important fact for any nursing community.”

Some of the Jewish nursing homes in New York State that are members of his associations have complained to Shulman however that “there aren’t enough labs to do all the testing you have to do which is another problem.”

They note that since the governor required testing two times a week “sometimes they’re testing and they’re not getting the results back for the first test before they are administering the second test.”

Mary Mack, right, a resident of senior housing, is tested for COVID-19 in Paterson, N.J., May 8, 2020.
Mary Mack, right, a resident of senior housing, is tested for COVID-19 in Paterson, N.J., May 8, 2020. Credit: AP Photo/Seth Wenig

Nationwide, there have been over 34,000 coronavirus-related deaths at nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, according to an Associated Press tally. In New York State, there have been nearly 5,700 deaths from confirmed and presumed COVID-19 infections at nursing homes, including nearly 3,100 deaths in New York City. 

America’s Jewish community is older on average than the rest of the country: 26 percent of the community in the 48 contiguous states is 65 or older, compared to about 20 percent of the general population, according to a survey released last October by Brandeis University’s Steinhardt Social Research Institute and published in JTA.

Beyond testing, Mayor de Blasio’s plan also calls for increased personnel in facilities to support existing staff, and deploy outbreak control teams from the New York City Health Department to help “control and prevent outbreaks in congregate settings before they occur.” It has so far placed 240 additional personnel in nursing homes citywide. With the new plan, the goal is to reach 600 personnel in total.

In addition, the plan aims to allow elder New Yorkers to shift to “a model of home-based care, allowing them to receive the same quality, supportive services under the care of their families and loved ones”, which Shulman said has been an issue nursing care facilities have pondered before the coronavirus as well.

“These past few months have been painful for families across the city — and nowhere has this fear been more acute than among our city’s most vulnerable residents,” the Mayor said. “Seniors are especially at risk for COVID-19, which is why we are marshaling every resource to our nursing homes to help them save lives and prevent future outbreaks.”

Personal protective equipment has also been a point of concern for city senior care facilities over the past months as shortages were reported. The Mayor’s new plan aims to create a 90-day reserve of materials including N95 and other face masks, face shields, goggles, gloves, gowns, as well as some 4,000 ventilators.

Over the past two months, Shulman and his team, aided by the Jewish Federations of North America, have been able to purchase over $5 million-worth of equipment for members of the Association of Jewish Aging Services, an umbrella organization of some 100 nonprofit member groups providing Jewish senior care across the United States and Canada.

To sustain this effort, they have now turned to the public for help, with a crowdfunding campaign titled “Pledge to protect.”

A man with a mask stands behind a sign advertising the Sapphire Center nursing home in the Brooklyn borough of New York, U.S., April 17, 2020.
A man with a mask stands behind a sign advertising the Sapphire Center nursing home in the Brooklyn borough of New York, U.S., April 17, 2020. Credit: REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

“It’s the worst of both worlds,” Shulman told Haaretz last month. “We have tremendously increasing expenses with no revenue because no one is coming in, there are no admissions.”

“Not for profit Jewish nursing homes, hospice care centers, home care, and other frontline providers for the elderly have suffered devastating fatalities due to the coronavirus pandemic,” the campaign’s online page states.

According to the campaign, which has raised close to $800,000 of its three million goal, Jewish facilities are facing a dire shortage of personal protective equipment such as gloves, masks, and gowns, but “no one is hearing their cries for help.”

“These healthcare providers can’t afford to pay the increased prices for [protective equipment], and their residents are suffering at alarming rates.” the page adds, calling for “bold action.”CEOs of Jewish nursing homes across the country have called out for help, as the crisis continues to unfold.

“We pivoted swiftly from maintaining health to fighting for healing, from managing conditions to actively treating,” Carol Silver Elliott, CEO of the Jewish Home Family, which runs multiple Jewish nursing care facilities, wrote in an op-ed responding to those pointing the finger at nursing homes for some of the struggles in those facilities.

“We scrounged and begged for personal protective equipment. We networked our colleagues for access to testing. We pushed our medical staff to think and act aggressively in treatment,” she added. “Yet here we are, the scapegoats in the blame game.”

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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