HAMMONTON — Holly Di Matteo breathed a sigh of relief Tuesday when she found out her mother, a resident of the Hammonton Center for Rehabilitation and Health Care, had tested negative for COVID-19.
Di Matteo, of Collingswood, Camden County, found out last week about a significant increase in positive coronavirus cases in the 240-bed facility where her mom Cindy, 65, has lived for 2½ years due to severe disabilities.
“I wish I could take my mom home,” Di Matteo said.
In just one week, the Hammonton Center has erupted as a hotbed of COVID-19 in Atlantic County, as cases grew from two positives and no deaths Thursday to 147 cases and 10 deaths on Tuesday, the latest numbers available.*
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The state has taken notice of the Hammonton Center and is shipping 14,430 pieces of personal protective equipment, including face shields, N95 masks, surgical masks and gloves there, and “the local health department is providing guidance to the facility on how to manage this outbreak,” a spokesperson for the state Department of Health said.
How the numbers rose so dramatically is unclear. Some staff members said it was a failure of the center’s administration in sharing accurate information, lack of protective gear and an inability to isolate residents, as most rooms are shared.
Administrators at Hammonton Center directed questions to Jeffrey Jacomowitz, spokesman for owner Centers Health Care of Bronx, New York, who disputed the staff members’ claims.
“In full PPE gear, both clinical and nonclinical staff have been in the trenches caring for the patients, from meal service to full medical attention,” Jacomowitz said in a statement. “The health and safety of our residents and staff at Hammonton Center is our No. 1 priority always.”
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While the Hammonton Center’s sudden increase in cases is dramatic, similar problems plague nursing homes around the region and state.
Forty percent of New Jersey’s COVID-19 deaths have been of long-term care facility residents, and the percentage is even higher in Atlantic and Cape May counties.
In Atlantic County, more than half of COVID-19 deaths — 19 of 35 as of Tuesday — have been in such facilities, and in Cape May County, 12 of 20 deaths have been in long-term care.
The concentration of cases in nursing homes prompted Cooper University Health Care to volunteer to test almost 4,000 patients and staff at 16 South Jersey long-term care facilities, including the Hammonton Center. It’s an attempt to keep the spread of the virus in the south from exploding as it did in North Jersey.
Cooper did the testing last Friday, and state Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli said Tuesday about 92% of results are in, and the data will be finalized and publicly released by the end of the week.
Located on the White Horse Pike, the Hammonton Center is part nursing home, part short-term rehabilitation facility, and uses most of its 240 beds for long-term care. In its latest inspection report Aug. 8, 2019, the center was cited for 10 health deficiencies. In the past three years, the facility has paid more than $11,000 in fines for 28 deficiencies, sometimes widespread, ranging in severity from potential to actual harm to its residents.
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According to Medicare.gov, the facility received a below average rating of two out of five stars.
One nurse who works at the Hammonton Center and asked not to be identified for fear of retribution said the facility did not provide PPE until April 6 and each nurse is given one KN95 mask per week and only one isolation gown per shift.
“We don’t have a private room to isolate them, so they’re in the room with another patient,” the nurse said last week. “If we do not isolate these people, people are going to die. One lady has already died. I have a patient in there who is actively dying.”
She also said not all staff was tested.
“We’re still taking in a lot of admissions when I feel like we shouldn’t be,” said another employee, a nursing assistant who also asked not to be named.
Both women said the facility failed to inform staff that a nursing assistant there was found to be COVID-19 positive April 17, until the following week.
“They didn’t say anything to the staff. We really had the right to know,” the nurse said.
Jacomowitz, in his statement, contradicted the nurses’ claims, stating neither PPE nor isolation has been a problem.
He said the Hammonton Center, “as per the New Jersey Department of Health and CDC guidelines, has been in full PPE since early March.”
“Hammonton Center has a wing in the facility for only COVID-19 positive patients,” Jacomowitz said. “Staff in that particular COVID-19 wing only work with those patients and do not travel away from that wing to other parts of building.”
Di Matteo said that in the past few weeks, she has been having trouble getting in touch with her mom and members of the staff for updates, and is concerned about the lack of information and protective measures being taken at the Hammonton Center.
Last week, Di Matteo received a photo message from her mom’s phone of her mom and one of the nurses who was not wearing a mask. The two were cheek to cheek.
“It’s not fair to the families — bad enough we’ve got to sit here and wonder — but what about these patients?” Di Matteo said.
*This story has been updated April 29, 2020 to reflect the most recent available data of positive COVID-19 cases.