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State re-opening COVID recovery center in Meriden as cases surge

When COVID only recovery centers opened in the Spring, the state was worried the hospitals would be overrun.

MERIDEN, Conn. — Trying to avoid more nursing home outbreaks, the state is reopening one of their COVID recovery centers. At the same time, the operator of those facilities is making some recommendations. When COVID only recovery centers opened in the Spring, the state was worried the hospitals would be overrun. Back then, their mission was only to free up hospital beds by moving people who needed an intermediate level to the recovery centers. But as the months went on, the state revised the mission and allowed the centers to accept COVID patients from long-term care facilities. 

Now, with COVID cases in longterm care facilities on the rise, the COVID only facility known as Westfield-Meriden will re-open by November 16th. "Initially we will be able to accommodate up to 90 residents and as time goes on, we can grow that as well," said Tim Brown, the spokesperson for Athena Healthcare who operates the facilities. Athena also has the capability to quickly stand up an additional recovery center in Torrington.

When the first wave of COVID hit in the spring, Connecticut was quickly able to establish these facilities with the help of the Connecticut National Guard who mobilized to furnish the facilities. But as quickly as they were set up, they then remained idle for more than a month before accepting patients. Some facilities needed repairs, while others were still trying to hire staff and procure PPE.

Athena, who operates skilled nursing facilities in other states says they've spent more than $2 million in Connecticut alone to acquire PPE. They now have an ample supply and are in the process of hiring staff for the Meriden site. Staff there will continue to receive the bonus pandemic related pay they received in the spring.

Athena Healthcare stepped up as the only operator willing to manage these facilities for Connecticut. Now, it's being hailed as a model other states should adopt. Matthew Barrett the CEO of Connecticut Association of Healthcare Facilities said, "I have gotten the feedback that Connecticut has been identified as a best practice state."

FOX61 obtained a copy of Athena Healthcare’s review of operations. It shows 90% of the patients at their four COVID only centers recovered from the virus compared to 25% in traditional nursing homes. "Because of the specialty care being provided and the staffing at the COVID alternative recovery centers, the actual incidence of recovery is much high when residents transferred there either from the hospital or from another congregate environment," said Barrett.

Too be clear, these COVID recovery homes, while well-equipped are not a substitute for hospitals. They are for people too ill to be at home, but not sick enough to need a hospital bed. COVID recovery centers are skilled nursing facilities and will not be equipped with ventilators or therapies like Remdesivir.

The report also found PPE could be preserved more easily at these facilities. Athena is urging the state to identify more vacant buildings to serve as COVID-only facilities. "We're hoping that by opening Westfield 30 beds at a time that we would be able to accommodate the current needs of the state," said Brown, "But if those needs change over time there are other locations across the state that could be opened up fairly quickly as well."

The Three Rivers nursing home in Norwich was recently shut down and sits vacant, although the building is still owned by JACC Healthcare and its future use remains in question. A former nursing home has also sat abandoned for years on Jordan Lane in Wethersfield.

Athena has made it clear they are not willing to convert their existing nursing homes into COVID-only facilities. They did that in the spring with both Sharon and Northbridge and had to find new homes for more than 100 elderly residents who didn’t have virus. Brown said, "The trauma for the resident's families and staff associated with using an existing center requiring the transfer of the residents out of the building was just too much to bear on them and our staff."

We are also learning new information about the first patient in Connecticut be identified with COVID. You may remember they were a resident at the Evergreen nursing home in Stafford Springs. It’s also an Athena Healthcare facility. Athena says that person likely got the virus through contact with an outside visitor. They’ve also identified early COVID cases possibly linked to kidney dialysis treatments outside the nursing homes.