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Health department gives Hebrew Home clean bill of health

State finds only minor deficiencies on how facility reacted to pandemic

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Seven surveyors from the state's health department spent three days reviewing every floor, every department and every policy and procedure. And now that it's over, the Hebrew Home at Riverdale says those surveyors have moved on to the next nursing home after giving the Palisade Avenue facility a thumbs up on its response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The health department found "minor deficiencies" at the Hebrew Home, according to administrators there, primarily how guards at the front gate screen people coming in, and the need to notify the families of 28 residents whose deaths were reclassified as COVID-related earlier this week.

"Seven public health professionals from the state Department of Health spent three days combing through every nook and cranny of the Hebrew Home," facility chief executive Daniel Reingold told The Riverdale Press on Friday. "They were complimentary of our infection control, they were complimentary of our plan, and after they saw the COVID recovery building we had set up, they were very impressed with it."

While many facilities might be anxious to have health department officials on-site for an unannounced visit, Reingold says he was grateful, because it allowed the facility to not only immediately implement twice-weekly testing for staff members, but also tested every single person on campus, from resident to administrators.

That testing found 109 residents were positive for SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, as well as 64 staff members, including 43 nurses. Most of them were asymptomatic, Reingold said, which was a problem only regular — and complete — testing could solve. Before that, the home was only able to do limited testing, and would have to focus only on those who showed symptoms like fever or cough. But just one asymptomatic carrier could easily spread the disease through the entire facility.

"The enemy here is the pandemic," Reingold said. "The enemy is not nursing homes. The enemy is not the governor. The enemy is the fact that we are dealing with an uncharted pandemic. It takes no prisoners. It is invisible.

"The challenge is that we didn't have testing early on, and if we were able to have testing like what we were able to start last week, I would guess that the number of people tested and the number of people who died would have been much lower."

With the reclassification of 28 past cases since March 1, the Hebrew Home now has 63 confirmed and suspected deaths related to COVID-19. Based on data provided by the state health department, that would make the most deaths in a single facility in the Bronx, just above the 61 deaths reported at The Plaza Rehabilitation and Nursing Center on Kingsbridge Road. However, the health department's public data still shows only 18 deaths at the Hebrew Home despite the new findings, and it seems other data hasn't been updated recently either.

"As a result of the department's unannounced focus COVID-19 investigation at the Hebrew Home, a statement of deficiencies has been issued to the facility," state health department spokeswoman Jill Montag told The Press. "Violations include infection control concerns, failure to report accurately upon request by the department, and failure to timely communicate with families and residents in a timely fashion regarding COVID-19 deaths.

"The provider is responsible to submit a plan of correction to address the identified concerns."

Reingold said the Hebrew Home already has corrected the issues, including deficiencies surrounding the 28 re-classified deaths.

Because even one death is one too many for Reingold, and the 1,700 employees who work in the state's largest non-profit nursing home. 

"The other part of all this that no one really talks about is the impact of the losses of our residents on the staff who took care of them for years," Reingold said. "These are people they had deep relationships with over the years."

Some employees even created a ritual called "sacred pause," allowing them to stand in for families who could not be there because of the pandemic. These pauses allowed everyone to stop for a few moments and share memories about that person and the life they led.

Still, with more than 750 beds, Reingold feels the story could have been far worse at the Hebrew Home. While he mourns for all 63 people who have died from virus-related complications, he's relieved it wasn't more than that.

"I'm grateful that we were able to contain it, given the obstacles that we have," he said. "It is a testament to the heroics of our entire team, from the senior management and all across the board, especially the employees coming to work and risking their own health and lives knowing they were possibly bringing it home to them. They still came in day after day, doing their work with compassion and love."

More than 23,000 people have died in New York from COVID-related complications, according to the health department, including more than 2,900 in the Bronx. Fewer than 10 percent of those deaths took place in nursing homes, although the number rises significantly to more than 24 percent when suspected COVID-related deaths are included.

As of Thursday, no county downstate is eligible to start Gov. Andrew Cuomo's phased reopening, with New York City still falling short on the number of available hospital and intensive care unit beds available. Long Island and the Mid-Hudson suburb counties could be the first to start reopening as early as next week, as long as their hospital death rates continue to decline over the holiday weekend.

All of upstate, in the meantime, has begun the first stage of reopening, which includes construction, manufacturing, wholesale trade, select retail for curbside pickup, as well as agriculture, forestry and fishing. Three later phases, which allow for more openings, will then go into effect two weeks after each previous phase starts, as long as there's no significant spike in infection rates, deaths, hospitalizations, or treatment facility capacity.

Follow all the local coverage of the coronavirus pandemic and how it relates to your neighborhood at RiverdalePress.com/coronavirus. Sign up for our newsletter to get daily updates on coverage and closing by sending your email address to newsroom@riverdalepress.com. And finally,  keep up with all the latest closures, postponements and what you can still take part in with our continuously updated list by clicking here.

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