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Lessons from the pandemic in Virginia nursing homes

Photo of the sign outside a Richmond long-term care facility that says “Canterbury Rehabilitation and Health Care Center”
Screen capture
VPM News Focal Point
Canterbury Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center experienced a surge of COVID-19 cases resulting in an outbreak in 2020.

At the height of the pandemic, the Virginia Department of Health reported that long-term care facilities were home to more than fifty percent of the commonwealth’s reported coronavirus outbreaks. Other senior living facilities also struggled to contain the virus. Former Canterbury Rehabilitation and Healthcare Center, Dr. Jim Wright takes us back to what went wrong and how the state is moving forward.

Earlier this year, Governor Glenn Youngkin signed the state’s first law requiring minimum staffing for nursing homes. Advocacy organization AARP Virginia said the legislation is a start but much more needs to be done to protect older adults.

Canterbury Rehab and Healthcare Center declined to participate in our report


KEYRIS MANZANARES: Anne James, a piano teacher who lives in a Richmond retirement community, remembers the COVID-19 lockdown.

ANNE JAMES: We were advised to stay in our apartments as much as possible. We had special times to pick up our mail so that there wasn't too much opportunity to see people.

KEYRIS MANZANARES: James says she felt safe because of strict COVID protocols in her community but was concerned about the deaths at Canterbury Rehab and Healthcare Center.

ANNE JAMES: It was terrible that one of the nursing homes not far from here had many, many deaths.

JIM WRIGHT: We saw COVID appear in New York City, then Washington D.C. and we could see it move down I-95, [towards] Fredericksburg and then that first case in Richmond. And we realized that A, it was infectious and B, there was no cure.

KEYRIS MANZANARES: Dr. Jim Wright is the former medical director of Canterbury Rehab and Healthcare Center, where he worked for 10 years.

JIM WRIGHT: We were thinking in our nursing home of about 140, 150 people, we would have somewhere around 25 cases and out of those 25 cases, we could expect somewhere around four to five deaths.

KEYRIS MANZANARES: But the center experienced one of the worst outbreaks of COVID-19 in the United States. At the end of the first outbreak in May 2020, Dr. Wright says 50 people had died.

JIM WRIGHT: At the beginning, you definitely had the sense that we were a little ignored slice of society that really didn't matter that much and resources were not going to be diverted into the nursing home.

KEYRIS MANZANARES: Canterbury staff feared they would get COVID, resulting in staffing shortages. Dr. Wright says it was chaos.

JIM WRIGHT: You had to work like you were in a combat zone. ‘I have to get oxygen to this patient.’ ‘I have to get IV fluids to this patient.’ ‘I have to make sure they're hydrated, eating and drinking.’ ‘I have to change them.’ ‘I have to get them to an isolation room.’ You just had to focus on each individual task. You could not stop to think about the big picture 'cause it would crush you.

KEYRIS MANZANARES: Dr. Wright says the Virginia Department of Health responded by providing testing for the Center. Dr. Laurie Forlano, the Acting State Epidemiologist at VDH, says at the start of the pandemic the state lacked the tools to deal with the virus.

LAURIE FORLANO: We've learned a lot about the COVID-19 virus, how it's transmitted, how it presents itself in a person, and how it can spread and importantly, how we can control it.

KEYRIS MANZANARES: Now, the challenge is continuing to get shots into arms and making sure people's vaccines are up to date, especially for older Virginians.

LAURIE FORLANO: There's plenty of places still to get free COVID-19 vaccine and get those bivalent doses in for extra protection, particularly for people who are older or more immunocompromised.

ANNE JAMES: The vaccine was such a gift. It gave us back our ability to be in the community and out and about.


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