Chip Minemyer’s mother, Marjorie, was born in the Bald Eagle Valley. Minemyer said she was sweet and full of life and loved the area. He lost his mother to COVID-19 on Thanksgiving day.
“She was 92, a lifelong Centre County resident," Minemyer said.
Nationally, about a third of COVID-19 deaths are from nursing and personal care homes. In Pennsylvania, it’s more than half.
Marjorie Minemyer had been living at Centre Crest, a nursing home in Centre County, for about a year and a half.
Early on in the pandemic, Chip Minemyer could meet with her at a distance — once in the garden, and then a few times through a window.
But then her roommate got COVID-19. They moved her to another room. But it didn’t help. His mother got it too.
“It was a matter of a week from finding out the roommate tested positive to my mom tested positive, to both of them being gone," Minemyer said.
Minemyer doesn’t blame Centre Crest.
“I have great respect for what I saw was happening there and what I knew was happening there. And I had many emotional conversations with staffers over the last three or four weeks because I knew what they were dealing with," he said. "But to have it come home, that was a totally different feeling obviously.”
According to the state Department of Health, there have been 203 resident cases at Centre Crest and 106 cases among staff. All told, 70 residents died from COVID-19.
The health department’s reports on nursing homes across the state are far from complete. In many cases, the listing for a facility just says “no data.” But of those reporting, only six other nursing homes in Pennsylvania are listed as having more deaths from COVID-19 than Centre Crest.
Andrew Naugle is administrator of Centre Crest.
“It’s been a tough year. I don’t think 2020 has been a good year for anybody. I think nursing homes in general, it’s been a hard year for us," Naugle said.
He said staff tried to be upfront with families, using Zoom and phone calls.
Once the coronavirus was in the facility, staff followed the state and federal rules and guidelines, including having personal protective equipment and different “zones” for residents.
Centre Crest now has very few cases. And, staff and residents were a part of the state’s first round of COVID-19 vaccinations.
Naugle said last week about 310 employees and residents got their first vaccine.
“Getting vaccinated is kind of the first win for long-term care facilities and also for the health industry in general," he said.
But not all eligible health care workers in Pennsylvania are getting vaccinated.
Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s Secretary of Health, said during a recent news conference that she did not have specific numbers on how many health care workers are saying no to getting vaccinated.
But, she said: “We have heard that some workers in long-term care facilities have declined.”
She pointed to the "rigorous" review process the vaccines have gone through.
“These vaccines are safe and they’re effective," Levine said. "It will be critically important for people to sign up and to get the vaccine and get their second dose for these vaccines, so that we can eventually stop the spread and get past COVID-19.”
In Pennsylvania, nursing and personal care homes account for more than half of COVID-19 deaths. In Centre County, the number is even higher — about 85% of deaths.
And deaths from the coronavirus are not just taking place at Centre Crest. According to the state Department of Health, as of Monday, there have been 128 deaths associated with nursing and personal care homes in Centre County. The state says 16 different facilities in the county have had cases.
“Nursing homes are sites of outbreaks really every year. Whether it’s influenza or norovirus, this is something that’s very common, given the fact that it’s not just a health care setting, but it’s people’s homes and they live very close. And they have staff caring for them, but they’re not trained at the same level as our health care system staff are trained," said Dr. Jen Kraschnewski, a professor of medicine, public health sciences and pediatrics at Penn State College of Medicine.
Kraschnewski is leading a project focused on training staff at nursing homes. It was awarded funding through the Patient-Centered Outcomes Research Institute.
"I found that only 3% of infection control preventionists — which is a position CMS (the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services) requires nursing homes to have in place — have received formal, infection control training," she said. “Which is a shocking number, but it really opens your eyes to why they may be particularly vulnerable to a pandemic.”
Kraschnewski said in general there hasn’t been a focus on educating all the staff when it comes to infection control. She is hoping to change that, in part by using an interactive, educational model. Rather than just sending nursing home staff written tips and guidelines, the approach uses live online classes and meetings that bring experts and nursing home staff together.
“If we can bring that to the table for them, working to help them identify effective approaches, not just understand the knowledge, but operationalize that knowledge within their own setting, I am hopeful that this can change the direction for future outbreaks," she said.
About 200 nursing homes have been recruited to take part in the study, which will compare the interactive approach with another model. The researchers began working with their first group right before the holidays.
Minemyer, who lost his mother to the coronavirus, is the editor of the Johnstown Tribune-Democrat. He pointed to what he views as the failure of politicians to lead when it comes to COVID-19. It's something he sees first-hand.
“I still encounter a lot of people who don’t want to wear masks, who refuse. Who don’t acknowledge that this is even happening. I still hear the word hoax from time to time, and it just makes me crazy,” he said.
He would like to see less focus on finger-pointing and more on finding solutions.
“You wish that partisanship wouldn’t get in the way of good judgment and sound advice for folks, but it seems to have done that," Minemyer said.
The state Department of Health said Monday more than 48,000 residents and staff at skilled nursing facilities have been vaccinated.