New York City public health officials are moving patients suffering from COVID-19 into beds within a nursing home on Roosevelt Island that cares for hundreds of residents with a wide range of severe medical conditions, including dementia and other age-related ailments, paralysis, traumatic brain injury and profound developmental disabilities.
The move comes after Mayor Bill de Blasio and city officials made a series of inaccurate and contradictory statements about their intention to use the facility to house COVID-19 patients and about their ability to protect the medically vulnerable residents of the Coler Rehabilitation and Nursing Care Center.
The decision has alarmed elected leaders and advocates for the disabled and elderly who fear the city is jeopardizing the lives of Coler residents, many of whom need assistance with even the most basic tasks.
In recent days, at least two longtime nursing home residents have tested positive for COVID-19 and died as the coronavirus has torn through Coler, spreading from room to room, according to residents and advocates. But the true count of the dead and sick at the taxpayer-funded facility is unclear.
Although the state has begun releasing the numbers of deaths at nursing homes, Coler is not included in that tally. City health officials have parked refrigerated trailers behind the aging brick complex to serve as a temporary morgue, but they also will not say how many people have perished, either among the nursing home population or the imported patients, or how many have been infected with the virus.
“Placing COVID patients in a nursing home is a bad idea,” said Richard Mollot, executive director of the Long Term Care Community Coalition, an advocacy group focused on improving conditions in nursing homes and assisted living facilities. “They are potentially infecting the most vulnerable people.”
Late last week, a group of elected officials sent a forceful letter to New York City Health and Hospitals Corporation chief Mitchell Katz, saying they were “deeply concerned about the situation” and felt misled by the city, which initially said that it would not bring COVID-19 patients into Coler.
“There seems to have been a reversal in policy; after being assured that COVID patients would NOT be admitted, there are reports that COVID patients are now housed at the hospital,” said the letter, which was signed by state Assembly Member Rebecca Seawright and state Sen. José Serrano, whose districts include Roosevelt Island, as well as Gale Brewer, the Manhattan borough president.
Worried that the virus might be migrating from COVID-19 patients to the long-term residents in the nursing home, Seawright, Serrano and Brewer asked that “all residents of the nursing home portion of the building [be] tested once a week for COVID.”
In response to questions from ProPublica, an HHC spokesperson downplayed concerns about the spread of the virus in the building. “With the help of our heroic frontline providers, we are ensuring that all infection control measures are followed for the safety of all under our care,” Stephanie Guzman said in an email.
De Blasio pushed back against criticism. “In the midst of an unprecedented health crisis, the city has expanded its hospital capacity to meet the urgent needs created by COVID-19,” said Avery Cohen, a spokesperson for the mayor. “Such efforts have been conducted in lockstep with the approval of our public health experts and would never interfere with the safety and health of patients and clinical staff. Any claims stating otherwise are simply inaccurate.”
As the virus sweeps across the country, killing thousands of nursing home residents, advocates say they fear that in the case of Coler, New York may have helped to create its own worst-case scenario.
“This place is a death trap,” said one Coler resident, who asked to speak anonymously for fear of reprisals from nursing home management.
The decision to use Coler for COVID-19 patients became public in mid-March, as waves of desperately sick New Yorkers began flooding into the city’s hospitals. De Blasio announced the city was lucky to have the “empty” hospital on Roosevelt Island to house patients. The facility, he told the media, was “being immediatelybrought back online.” At that time, Coler housed about 500 residents, some of whom had lived in the 68-year-old building for decades.
Then the city changed course and told the media that it was creating a new, 350-bed hospital on the Coler campus. On March 29, HHC — which runs Coler and the rest of the city’s public hospitals, nursing homes and health clinics — said, in a press release, that it had started accepting “non-COVID patients” at this new facility.
Within days, though, HHC again altered its messaging, saying that nurses and doctors would be treating people sick with COVID-19 at the new hospital, which it dubbed the Roosevelt Island Medical Facility.
Leaders at HHC have refused to disclose the exact location of these new hospital beds.
In response to questions from ProPublica, HHC asserted in an April 7 email that the new hospital was “in a separate area with no overlap or shared space” with the nursing home.
But residents of Coler — who described the location of the new beds in phone calls with ProPublica — and staff said that the new hospital shared the same hallways, elevators and other infrastructure as the nursing home.
When ProPublica asked HHC a second time about whether the new hospital shares space with the nursing home, Guzman, the spokeswoman, didn’t respond directly. “Health + Hospitals takes all appropriate and necessary infectious control measures to avoid any transmission of communicable diseases,” she said via email. Guzman added that the nursing home and the new hospital have separate staff, but acknowledged that the new beds were on “unused floors” of Coler.
Greg Antollino, an attorney who represents two traveling nurses who helped to set up the facility, said HHC assertions about the separation between the hospital and the nursing home are “misleading.” Antollino said his clients were sent onto the empty floors of the nursing home to prepare the rooms for a mix of patients arriving from city hospitals, some with COVID-19, some suffering from other serious afflictions.
The nurses, who were employed by Kansas-based Krucial Staffing, described their experiences in a lawsuit filed in early April in federal court. They also allege that their supervisors directed them to treat COVID-19 patients without the proper protective gear, Antollino said. Krucial has denied any wrongdoing.
At the New York State Department of Health, which licenses hospitals and other medical facilities throughout the state, communications chief Jonah Bruno said the department had granted HHC permission to create a “temporary hospital on Roosevelt Island.” But Bruno said he could not provide any specifics about the facility.
While it may be impossible to pinpoint how the virus got inside the nursing home, residents and staff said it’s clear that it has now established itself. And they fear the city has helped bring it there.
This month, 65-year-old Roy Watson, who was paralyzed and relied on a wheelchair to get around, died after a quick and dramatic downturn in his health. His friends and fellow patients say he developed a pressure sore — a wound that occurs when a bedridden person is left in one position for too long — that became severely infected. His condition was worsened, they said, by COVID-19, for which he had tested positive.
“When they took him out of here he was on oxygen,” said a fellow patient who asked to remain anonymous. “He never used oxygen before. He was on oxygen for a week.”
Watson was a member of Open Doors NYC, an arts collective based at Coler whose members are predominantly African American and Latino men who’ve suffered paralyzing spinal cord injuries, often due to street violence.
“He had a lot of wisdom to share,” said Jennilie Brewster, who heads Open Doors. “He really deeply wanted to use his story to express his pain and to help people learn from his experiences.”
Another resident, a 61-year-old man, contracted COVID-19 and died on April 7, according to the man’s niece. Her uncle had been at Coler for approximately two years, she said, because he needed around-the-clock care after suffering a massive brain injury in a fall.
“Why are they introducing that virus into the nursing home that could kill all the patients there?” asked the woman. “There’s a possibility that it spread through staff or just through the air.”
Brewster is fearful that the virus will claim more Open Doors members, whose ranks include poets, writers and rappers. “I have a friend at Coler who is around 40 years old and has a condition where he can’t clear phlegm from his lungs. This would be devastating for him,” she said. Another friend, she added, has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD, which causes serious breathing problems. COVID-19, Brewster said, “could kill him.”
Workers at Coler say they have been unable to get even the basic protective gear that should be worn when attending to patients with COVID-19. “We’ve been told by our leaders that they’re not going to provide the masks, the N95,” said one Coler staffer in a video posted to YouTube and Instagram on April 3. “We have to treat people that are contaminated with coronavirus.”
One resident told ProPublica that most nursing assistants at Coler do not have N95 masks. “They are treating the people with COVID-19 and are also bathing and caring for people who don’t have it. And they don’t have the N95 mask,” said the man, who uses a wheelchair.
Coler executives insist that staff members are fully outfitted with personal protective equipment, or PPE. Last week, Coler CEO Robert Hughes told the New York Post that, “We are very fortunate in that we’ve had plentiful supplies of PPE throughout this time.”
In a series of phone calls, the nursing home resident said the situation, already scary, has been made worse by a dire shortage of staff as nurses and nursing assistants become sick or simply refuse to come to work. Those that are working often fail to hew to even basic infection-control practices, he said. At the same time, an unknown number of COVID-19 patients are being moved into the building day after day.
The man said his roommate was ill with COVID-19 and had a hacking cough, but Coler staff would not place the sick man in quarantine, even after a test confirmed that he had contracted the disease. Within days, he said, he had also tested positive.
Residents shared similar stories on an online suggestion box for the Coler community, which has since been shut down. Several stated that they were stuck in rooms with patients showing COVID-19 symptoms.
HHC disputes the allegations. “If someone is exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, they are isolated for formal assessment and, if warranted, testing and treatment,” HHC said in response to questions from ProPublica.
Other residents said they were suffering from neglect. One disabled resident wrote that they had been left in bed for four days because of the outbreak and the scarcity of staff.
Another wrote in all capital letters: “FAMILIES ARE BEING TOLD LIES WHILE RESIDENTS ARE FORCE TO LAY IN BED AND BE AT RISK OF BOTH HEALTH COMPLICATIONS AND COVID 19.”