WRAL Investigates

'I cannot think of one thing we could have done differently,' says owner of Durham nursing home with major virus outbreak

Posted April 9, 2020 7:26 p.m. EDT

— The owner of a Durham nursing home where dozens of residents and staff members have tested positive for the coronavirus in the past week or so said his staff followed all safety protocols before the outbreak and has since stepped up its efforts to battle the virus.

Sixty-six residents and 18 employees have tested positive for the virus, said Neil Pruitt, chairman and chief executive of PruittHeath, which owns the Carolina Point facility at 5935 Mount Sinai Road, just inside the Orange County line.

"This is a deadly virus, especially for our population," Pruitt said Thursday. "It's scary how quickly it moves. It truly is a silent but violent enemy."

Two Carolina Point residents have died in the outbreak, which Pruitt said started at the facility on April 1.

The outbreak at Carolina Point prompted state officials on Wednesday to place new requirements on nursing homes to curb the spread of the virus, including requiring staff to wear masks, close common areas, segregate infected residents from others and step up cleaning. Also, all residents and staff at nursing homes statewide are now being tested for the virus.

Pruitt said all of those actions have already been done at Carolina Point, noting his staff has repeatedly moved in advance of state guidance.

"I cannot think of one thing we could have done differently," he said, noting that housekeeping shifts were expanded from 7½ hours to 10 hours in mid-March to ensure high-touch and high-traffic areas could receive extra cleaning.

Air scrubbers have now been installed in Carolina Point, and staff is being pulled from across PruittHealth – the company operates 170 locations in the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida – to help stem the outbreak.

"It's not a great situation, but I'm really proud of our caregivers and our administration. They've really stepped up," Pruitt said.

Staff spent Wednesday and part of Thursday sanitizing rooms in a section of Carolina Point to move non-infected patients, he said. A barrier will separate that area from the rest of the facility, and only staff who have tested negative for the virus will care for patients there.

"We separate as much as we can the staff to treat the different populations," he said. "We minimize the chance that we spread COVID-19 from the population that has the virus to those that do not."

A Carolina Point resident who spoke to WRAL News on Thursday provided a different story, however, blaming "cross-contamination with the staff" for the outbreak.

"They say everyone is separated, and that’s not true," said the woman, who asked not to be named. "There’s people on my hall that are negative. They tested negative, where there’s a bunch of us on this hall that have tested positive.

“My nurse last night [had] no mask, no gloves. They are doing what they want to do. That’s the problem,” she said. “I asked her, 'Are you going to wear a mask or gloves or anything?' She said, 'Why?' She said it’s all over the place. There’s no need to do it now. That’s why we are all sick."

Pruitt said the company has an adequate supply of personal protective equipment for staffers and uses "droplet precautions" requiring masks, gowns and gloves be worn by any staffer treating an infected patient.

WRAL investigates examined state inspection reports for all of the long-term care facilities with outbreaks. While most issues were common, a couple stood out:

  • Carolina Point, for example, was cited for 13 deficiencies last year – the state average is five – and it's health rating was categorized as "much below average."
  • The Pine Forest Rest Home in Northampton County, where more than two dozen residents have tested positive, had a two-star rating and and and 83.5 score. The inspection last September noted the facility's infection control policy had not been updated "for years."
  • Pinehurst Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center, which has 45 residents and at least eight staff members who tested positive, received a one-star overall rating from Medicare, and the facility has been fined more than $310,000 in the past two years, most of which came after a patient died.​

"We know that we need to ramp up our efforts around these nursing home settings because the virus spreads so rapidly," said Dr. Mandy Cohen, the secretary for the state Department of Health and Human Services.

While the state restricted most visitation to the facilities weeks ago, Cohen said the virus still found a way in.

"We are seeing the virus spread from patient to patient, most likely through the workers," she said.

Pruitt said he has no idea how the virus got into Carolina Point.

"We've been working nonstop on COVID-19," he said.

But the Carolina Point resident provided conflicting information to Pruitt's claims about staffing at the facility.

"We had almost a skeleton crew before the virus even took hold here," she said. "As the virus has gotten worse, more and more people are either sick or not coming in, afraid to come in."

Pruitt acknowledged that the health care industry is short of nurses and certified nurse assistants, but he said the facility has always had adequate staff.

"We know it's a scary time, but we take care of people – that's what we do – and the vast majority of our partners have risen to the occasion," he said.

PruittHealth is offering staff 20 percent bonuses to work at Carolina Point amid the outbreak and is working on hiring 2,000 people companywide, he said.

"I want to assure our families that we're doing everything possible to ensure we have the staff to care for your loved ones," he said. "Right now, our goal is to get plenty of staff in there to implement our different care-level units and to have segregated staff."

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