CINCINNATI — Ignored call lights. Cold meals. Soiled undergarments. Undispensed medicine. Bed sores. Isolation. Unanswered phone calls.
These are some of the 80 to 100 complaints that Bob Vines and other ombudsmen investigate each month at long-term care facilities through Pro Seniors, an advocacy group in Southwest Ohio.
“COVID didn’t create the problems in nursing homes, but it has exacerbated them,” Vines said.
As COVID cases in Ohio’s long-term care facilities rebound, Vines worries that more staff members will quit and family visitation will end, making things worse for the state’s most fragile who already endured months of isolation during the pandemic’s peak.
“Cases of COVID have spiked. That means the number of closings of nursing homes for visitation has increased,” Vines said.
COVID cases inside Ohio’s long-term care facilities have increased by 45 percent in two weeks. The Ohio Department of Health’s most recent data shows 416 residents and 599 staff members have COVID.
“There’s ten times as many (COVID cases) as there were two months ago, in the early part of July,” said Ohio Health Care Association Executive Director Pete Van Runkle, who noted that cases are still dramatically lower than the 8,000 weekly case totals in December.
One Clermont County nursing home, Batavia Nursing Care Center, has the most COVID cases of any long-term care facility in the state: 30 residents and four staff members, according to state health data.
No one from Batavia Nursing Care Center returned WCPO’s requests for comment.
A Clermont County Sheriff’s Department incident report from Sept. 10, shows deputies responded to the Batavia Nursing Care Center after a resident called the county’s Mobile Crisis Team to complain about his care.
“(He) stated he is frustrated with his treatment at the facility and wanted someone to talk to. (He) is a paraplegic and feels he is not treated well,” according to the incident report.
Deputies left the facility after the resident denied having any suicidal thoughts and did not want to be transported to a hospital, according to the report.
Health department reports show the Batavia Nursing Care Center, which specializes in patients who are on ventilators, had no violations during six inspections since last February.
All long-term care facilities across Ohio are experiencing some degree of staffing shortages, Van Runkle said.
“People are leaving because they just can’t take it anymore. They can’t take having to deal with the pandemic. Because health care and long-term care, in particular, are on the front lines,” Van Runkle said.
Van Runkle expects more staff members will quit to avoid the COVID vaccine mandate that President Joe Biden announced last week. He is requiring vaccinations for workers in most healthcare facilities that receive Medicare or Medicaid reimbursement, including hospitals and nursing homes.
“Things just keep getting worse and there’s not really a lot of light at the end of the tunnel,” Van Runkle said. “Folks are already walking out the door. It’s like, okay I know this mandate is coming and I’m not going to comply with it, so I’m just going to go ahead and find another job now.”
Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control show that 79 percent of residents in Ohio’s long-term care facilities are fully vaccinated for COVID. Yet just over half of health care workers inside those facilities, or 53 percent, have been fully vaccinated.
A nursing home near Xenia, Greenewood Manor, closed in July, Van Runkle said, and others are on the verge of shutting down because of staffing shortages.
Nursing homes owned by smaller companies with less flexibility to move residents around or summon corporate help, and those in rural areas where COVID vaccine rates are the lowest, are especially at risk of closing, he said.
“The tipping point is when you don’t have enough staff to take care of even a reduced number of patients,” Van Runkle said. “At some point it gets to where you can’t even meet their basic needs and then the provider has no choice but to shut down.”
WCPO has been following for more than a year the story of Dennis Paulik and his 100-year-old mother, Helen Paulik, who lives in a highly-rated Butler County nursing home.
“The labor shortage in nursing homes is getting worse. As a result, my mom is back to eating most of her meals in her room and as a result is isolated once again with no social interaction except staff,” Paulik said. “Biden’s vaccination mandate is just going to make this worse.”
Van Runkle is hoping that state officials release federal pandemic funds to long-term care facilities so they can boost the pay of workers and hopefully quell the staffing exodus.
Staffing shortages mean phone calls to nursing homes often go unanswered, even for an ombudsman like Vines.
“I had an ombudsman actually go to a facility this weekend and couldn’t get in,” Vines said. “The door was locked and nobody came to answer the door. That’s a problem.”
The Ohio Department of Health’s website lists which long-term care facilities have COVID cases. But it does not state how many people have died of COVID at each facility.
That is information WCPO has fought for since last year.
The health department appealed its loss to the 10th District Court of Appeals, delaying the release of that information if WCPO is successful by months, just as COVID cases in nursing homes are rising again.
WCPO obtained invoices through a public records request this week which show the Ohio Department of Health has spent $42,852 in legal fees, to date, to fight WCPO in court and continue to keep secret the locations of COVID deaths in nursing homes.
Meanwhile, Vines urged family members and nursing home residents to call Pro Seniors with concerns or complaints.
“If someone calls us, we have a right to go into a home even if there is a COVID outbreak, and resolve it, and investigate,” Vines said. “We’d have a lot more cases I’m sure, if people knew about us, or if people weren’t afraid of what might happen if they called us.”
Pro Seniors of Southwest Ohio serves seniors in Butler, Clermont, Clinton, Hamilton and Warren counties. Complaints can be kept confidential. Call (513) 345-4160.