ALBION — As recently as May 10, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo reported hospitalizations and deaths were continuing to fall in New York state.

That isn’t the case at the Villages of Orleans Health and Rehabilitation Center, where diagnoses of COVID-19 are rising daily.

As of Thursday, 20 residents of the nursing home have died from COVID-19, and a total of 77 residents were infected with the virus. Total capacity of the Villages is 122 beds, meaning more than 60% of residents have been infected.

New York State Assembly Member R. Stephen Hawley, R-Batavia, has taken an interest in the nursing home, particularly since a report last fall in which the Villages was rated as one of the worst long-term adult care facilities in Western New York.

The Villages, which originated as the Orleans County Nursing Home, is a holding of Comprehensive Healthcare Management Services. CHMS reportedly owns more than 20 nursing homes, mostly in the New York City area.

Hawley has written several letters to Howard A. Zucker, commissioner of the New York State Department of Health, about the Villages recently. In his latest letter, dated May 4, Hawley said he had received information and complaints that caused him to doubt the safety of the residents and staff, especially during the pandemic. Among them, he cited:

— A recent letter submitted to an online publication by Kyle Brakenbury, who feared for the care of his mother, a resident.

— Staffing is depleted, so much so that parent company CHMS Group contracted and paid for the relocation of six aides from the state of Louisiana, which is considered one of the hotspots in America for coronavirus.

— A nurse in the dementia unit swabbed six patients and was told by the director of nursing to throw out the swabs and not send them for testing.

— Rooms are not being properly sanitized after a patient has been diagnosed as COVID-19 positive.

— Personal protective equipment is locked in the director of nursing’s office and only released when a Department of Health inspection is to occur.

— Staff is so demoralized that a fist fight broke out between two staff members, in front of the residents in the Canal Wing.

— A table with thermometers for taking employees' temperatures when they arrive at work is left unmanned until a known inspection is about to occur.

— The Orleans County Department of Health reported 54 positive cases of COVID-19 in the nursing home as of May 4, but reportedly only 38 cases showed up in the state's Health Electronic Response Data System.

Hawley's letter called for an unannounced inspection and an immediate, full-scale investigation of the Villages by the state health department.

The 19th death at the Villages was confirmed this past Tuesday by Mari Hamilton, a public health educator at the Orleans and Genesee County Health Department in Batavia. County health departments do not have any authority over nursing homes, but they are working with the Villages to provide support, she said.

“We are assisting them in any way we can, with advice or helping them acquire supplies they need,” Hamilton said.

The local health department also reported five confirmed cases of COVID-19 at a group home for people with disabilities in the town of Ridgeway.

Orleans County Legislature chairman Lynne Johnson of Lyndonville weighed in on the situation at The Villages, saying it's devastating. She was a legislator when the county made the decision in 2014 to sell the then-county nursing home.

“We had been losing money on the nursing home and were $2.83 million in the red when we sold it in January 2015,” Johnson said. “At that time, a study had been done by the Center for Governmental Research and found that publicly-owned nursing homes in the country were operating in the red." 

She recalled that the county was advised it was better to sell to a for-profit operator, because of the cost of employee benefits, and doing so would put publicly-owned land back on the tax rolls.

The company that initially bought the nursing home was a reputable company licensed by the state of New York, Johnson added, but a year later its main owner sold 75% of his shares to CHMS Group.

“There is no doubt New York State dropped the ball for not following through with initial complaints they received when this virus first hit,” Johnson said. “Our Orleans County Health Department went in and provided proper equipment and tested staff and patients in the very beginning. We weren’t going to sit idly by and we filed reports with the New York State health department. It can’t get any worse than it is now.”

The first case of COVID-19 at Oak Orchard Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Medina was reported on Tuesday.

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