A1 A1
Bigstory
Hospitalizations increase alongside positive cases of COVID-19 in Floyd County, nursing homes look at 'dramatically reshaping' industry

There were 14 people being treated in local hospitals who have tested positive for COVID-19 as of Tuesday and two more awaiting test results. That’s up one since Monday, and double the number of people hospitalized since last Wednesday.

Another number that has increased steadily is the number of people who have tested positive for the disease caused by the coronavirus. The Department of Public Health reported 12 more infections in Floyd County on Tuesday, bringing the county’s cumulative total to 514.

In the past seven days the state has reported 81 new cases in Floyd County.

There have been no new deaths related to a COVID-19 infection reported since May 26. Deaths at long term care facilities in Floyd County account for six of the county’s 15 reported deaths, according to Department of Community Health reports released this week.

The DCH regularly releases a report on long term care facilities in Georgia. That report lists the facility, total number of residents, number of residents who have tested positive for COVID-19, deaths, tests conducted, residents recovered as well as the number of staff who have tested positive.

What the report doesn’t list is the timeframe when the infections occurred. For instance, Rome Health and Rehabilitation was hit hard in late April. During that time there were 73 residents. Of that number, 25 tested positive and five died. However, the report also shows that 20 residents recovered.

The statistics for Rome Health and Rehabilitation are the same, two months later.

According to the DCH report on COVID-19 infections in Floyd County at long term care facilities:

Chulio Hills Health and Rehab on Chulio Road has had two residents and six staff members infected with COVID-19. No residents were listed as recovered and one resident has died.

Evergreen Health and Rehabilitation Center on Moran Lake Road has had one resident and two staff members infected with COVID-19. No residents were listed as recovered.

Fifth Avenue Health Care on North Fifth Avenue has had six residents and six staff members infected with COVID-19. All six residents were listed as recovered.

PruittHealth-Rome on Three Mile Road has had no residents listed as infected with COVID-19, however two staff members had tested positive.

Seven Hills Place on Technology Parkway had one staff member test positive.

Winthrop Health and Rehabilitation a nursing home on U.S. 411 had six staff members test positive for COVID-19 but no residents infected. 

To clarify, the DCH lists identical numbers for the nursing facility and nearby Winthrop Court, which is a separately owned and run facility. Charlie Williams, the owner of Winthrop Court, said they have had one staff member test positive for COVID-19 who has now recovered.

COVID ‘dramatically reshaping our business’Neil Pruitt, CEO of the Norcross-based long-term care facility chain PruittHealth, recently spoke with Georgia Health News about the lessons from COVID-19’s early days, the importance of data during a health crisis, and reforms he felt could bolster the embattled industry during the pandemic.

Pruitt was recently tapped as one of 25 experts who will join an independent national commission tasked with identifying best practices for infection control and improving care during the pandemic. The commission will deliver a report of its findings and recommendations to the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services later this summer.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

What has PruittHealth learned from responding to COVID-19 since March? What are the best practices you’ve taken away?

We’ve been very transparent. We were one of the first (providers) to put our data on our website. It was pretty important to be as transparent as possible with our family members and our partners and with the media. No one knew the answer of how to fight this.

We’ve continued to develop new data tools. We set up a call center staffed 24 hours a day where family members can call. We’ve been able to do over 14,000 video chats with family members.

From a clinical perspective, we learned the value of testing. Our philosophy has been “test our patients and partners often.” We’d like to get to the point where we’re able to test everyone once a week. It’s not the most pleasant thing in the world, so we’re hoping someone will come up with less intrusive manners of testing.

How do you think COVID-19 will reshape the long-term care industry from a financial perspective?

It’s dramatically reshaping our business. When we first ordered PPE (personal protective equipment), we ordered a great deal — and I’m thankful we did — and came very close to missing payroll.

The CARES (Act) money has been helpful from the federal government. That will take us to October. We figure the latest grant can take us to January.

We’re going to have to rethink how we give care to seniors. We’ve ordered air ionization systems for all of our buildings. We’re installing thermal cameras to the main points of entry. We’ll have visitor management systems to check (people’s) temperatures. PPE is going to be the norm for the foreseeable future.

But our buildings are not designed for infectious disease. The minimum square footage allows 150 square feet per patient. You put three or four people in a room, and it’s not the most ideal place to contain a deadly virus like COVID. In our latest building that we’re designing in Tampa, we’re installing positive and negative air rooms, where we put the switch to make a positive or negative air to control the infection. We’ve designed spaces with completely separate ventilation systems that employees can enter, put on PPE in the room, etc. And it’s a space where family members can come in to visit their loved ones through a glass barrier or something along those lines.

We’re trying to do right by patients. But eventually you do run out of money. All of this has a cost.

When you start serving on this national commission, what are some of your thoughts on how Georgia and other states should be rethinking about how long-term care is offered?

We need to look at how we measure quality and encourage transparency.

One thing that COVID has taught PruittHealth is that we need to publish our data as quickly as we possibly can and make it available to our family members. It’d be my hope there’d be some quality assurance protections from liability. That’s what prevents us from doing that now. We need to reward providers financially for the level of services that they’re providing.

So, just one example: If you look at (Nursing Home Compare’s) five-star system rating for staffing, it’s based on an archaic system.

We’ve started a Medicare Advantage plan that puts nurse practitioners in our centers who are overseen by physicians. None of those people are counted in those (Nursing Home Compare) numbers. We need to update how we evaluate and reward providers for the care that’s being provided. That’s a long-term solution.

In the short term, we are very concerned with best practices around infection control, looking at different examples and designs for health care facilities that prevent infections.

We need to know how we respond to the oversight and regulatory system. Is there a way that there can be shared accountability with regulators, academics, and providers so that we really are working together as a team and not with a ”gotcha” mentality?

Look at what we (currently) do with a poor-performing facility: We slap fines on them so they can’t afford staff, they get a terrible reputation, so they’re only getting the worst patients. That’s just kind of a death spiral for a facility.

There’s a way for government to hold nursing homes accountable in being completely transparent and really thinking about the consumers.

Nursing home operators have pushed for measures that provide immunity for many COVID-19-related lawsuits. But patient advocates disagree with that approach because they feel it doesn’t provide enough accountability. How do you balance those competing priorities?

Before there was immunity (considered in Georgia), PruittHealth decided to move forward with transparency. We welcome immunity, and hope we’ll have that signed into law.

Providers need to be held accountable by publishing infection rates, and letting families know. The problem is, when you have to worry about what’s going to be done with that data, and if you’re going to have massive lawsuits, you don’t collect the data, publish the data, or have a conversation about the data.

But the biggest predictor of whether you’ll have COVID in a nursing home is if it’s in the community. Staff members bringing it in, despite your best efforts. We should be held accountable. So when there are adverse actions, family members might have a workman’s-comp-type system that allows for fair compensation without outrageous verdicts that take away resources that would otherwise go to patients.

What else will be on your mind when this commission convenes?

One of the problems early on was that nursing homes weren’t on par with hospital systems (in getting logistical help). When we tried to get PPE, or had something like power disruptions — our headquarters were on generators for three weeks — we weren’t on par with the hospitals facing a crisis.

One of the most valuable things we have is our medical records. Hospitals receive funds to upgrade their infrastructure and be top-notch. If we have (funding for) better data and infrastructure, it’d be easier to know the full scope of this pandemic much sooner.

We also need to talk about government interactions in our centers. While we absolutely welcome regulators into our buildings, we want to make sure they’ve been tested. Governmental folks going from building to building is not ideal. I understand the need for it. Right now I’m not sure that’s the best protocol. I think we need to have some discussions about what can be done virtually first (before) the need to actually be in the building.

The one thing that I just emphasize is the need for frequency of the tests. We need to get to the point where patients and partners are tested once a week.

The problem is people will choose not to do it. We have some employees who don’t want to do it. To be a health care setting, it’s our opinion employee testing should be required, and it should be paid for by the government. With patients, it’s a different story. We should be able to refuse a patient if they refuse to be tested. ... Once (the virus) gets to a fragile population, it spreads like wildfire.


Local
Olympic hopefuls train at Rome Throws Center on Riverside Parkway

The one-year delay of the 2020 Olympic games may have come at just the right time for a group of young athletes who are now training in Rome two or three times a week.

The Rome Throws Center off Riverside Parkway provides specific training space for the javelin, hammer, shot put and discus events.

Daniel Haugh, Kord Ferguson and Haley Teel all have high hopes of making the team in 2021 in either the hammer, discus or shot put. Whitney Simmons — who specializes in the hammer — thinks that, realistically, 2024 might be her year.

The Tokyo Olympics were delayed until 2021 in late March because of the rapid spread of the coronavirus.

All four of the young athletes are training under the watchful eye of Mike Judge, a former javelin and shot put thrower at the University of Georgia. He has been coaching youth in the throw events for the past 22 years at his Throw 1 Deep Club out of Marietta.

Judge started coaching Daniel while he attended St. Pius X High School in Atlanta, and helped him win a scholarship at the University of Alabama. It was there that Daniel, who finished his career at Kennesaw State, met Kord and Haley. He was able to convince them to come from Tuscaloosa to Marietta after they completed school, to continue their training regimen together.

Haley was No. 2 in the shot put at the USA Track and Field Indoor Championships in February, and would have competed at the World Indoor Championships in China but those games were canceled by COVID-19.

Daniel made the U.S. World Championships team last year after winning the NCAA Division One National Championship. Kord also made the U.S. team, which participated in a dual meet with a European team in Belarus last September.

“I think those three have a real legitimate chance of making the Olympic team,” Judge said.

The team had been training at Kennesaw State but the college decided to turn their throws space into greenspace on the campus. Judge knew Berry track coach Luke Syverson, who hooked him up with Rome High Coach Nick Bridges.

“There are very few places in Georgia that have a hammer cage; they are few and far between,” Judge said. “Daniel throws so far that, most fields, his hammer would land outside the throwing area. Where my club throws, that would be out in the street.”

To make the Olympic team in the hammer, he has to throw 77.5 meters. That’s just 14 meters short of the length of a football field — or 2.7 times the length of a basketball court.

David threw a personal record in practice in Rome Monday at 76.65 meters Judge said if he can get up to the 80-meter mark this time next year he would have a good chance to medal in the Olympics.

“It’ll happen. It’s just a matter of time,” Daniel said.

Haley hails from Portland, Texas. She said Daniel and Kord talked her into moving to Marietta to continue to train with them.

“I moved here with both of them to follow my dreams,” Haley said. “We think Coach Mike is the one that’s going to get us there.”

Kord played just about all sports growing up in Kansas.

“I just gravitated toward the throws because I was bigger and stronger,” Kord said. “I ended up being fairly decent at it and found out you could go to college for free doing it.”

His best toss with the discus is 63.5 meters and he needs 66 meters to hit the Olympic standard. He said the COVID-19 related delay of the games helped him out with another year to train.

“Being 24 is an advantage for me,” Kord said.

Whitney Simmons, from Tyler, Texas, threw hammer for a Division III school in East Texas. She didn’t even know what the hammer was when she got to the school but said her coach told her to give it a try. She was willing to do whatever it took to compete.

Her coach moved to Newnan, Georgia, and knew about Coach Judge so he told her she ought to come to Georgia to continue her training.

“Women’s hammer is pretty (competitive) right now, so it’s going to take me a few years. My biggest focus is on the 2024 Olympics,” Whitney said. “I’m still a ways away but I know that this is the place where I need to be to get there.”

She threw a personal best in training Sunday with a toss of 65.52 meters.

The 2021 Olympics are slated to begin July 23, 2021, in Tokyo. The 2024 Olympics will be held in Paris, France.


Lydia Windisch, a first-grader at Model Elementary School


Local
Public defender office opens back up, courts continue to recover from COVID-19 outbreak

As the Rome Circuit Public Defender’s Office reopens, staff are taking more precautions after an employee tested positive for COVID-19.

The employee continues to remain in quarantine, but the majority of staff have returned to the office with negative tests. Over the weekend, the offices at 12 E. Fourth Ave. were sanitized before the staff returned.

Rome Circuit Public Defender Sean Lowe described the office’s priority as “providing zealous and client-centered representation, while minimizing COVID-19 related health concerns.”

The office will begin using a rotating schedule during office hours, with two attorneys and one administrative assistant always in the office. The remaining staff have been provided with computers to work remotely from home. All staff can be contacted through email or by calling the office at 706-234-0975.

Many of the office’s attorneys call in to the Floyd County Superior Court for matters such as bonding cases. When they go into the courthouse again, all of the staff are instructed to wear personal protective equipment, Lowe said.

The clerk’s office is still missing half its staff but working very hard to get things back to normal, Floyd County Clerk of Court Barbara Penson said.

Floyd County Superior Court — at 3 Government Plaza — reopened last week following a two-week quarantine for employees. Several staff members tested positive for COVID-19 and the only way for other staff members to return was to test negative twice.

Gov. Brian Kemp extended the Public Health State of Emergency on Monday through Aug. 11. The statewide judicial emergency order, issued by Georgia Chief Justice Harold Melton on March 14, was extended through July 14.

Clear partitions were installed between work stations over the weekend and the office is only allowing two people at a time into the offices. However, Penson believes many people are using the office’s online services instead.

By next week, the clerk hopes to have almost all of her staff back in the office.


Business
Kemp signs bills to update insurance regulations, laws

Gov. Brian Kemp signed four pieces of legislation Tuesday that had been sought by Insurance and Safety Fire Commissioner John F. King.

“From protecting Georgia policyholders by strengthening our life and health insolvency pool to streamlining rules in order to reduce the administrative burden on industry, these bills help ensure Georgia remains the No. 1 state in the nation to do business,” King said.

Armuchee Republican Rep. Eddie Lumsden, who chairs the House Insurance Committee, said he considered the bills priority items to pass in a session hobbled by the coronavirus pandemic.

One was the measure he sponsored, House Bill 1050, which strengthens the state’s life and health insurance guaranty fund in the event of future long-term care insolvencies. It adds HMOs to broaden the assessment base and splits future assessments between life and health insurers.

“It’s an industry solution to an industry problem, but it really is a consumer protection bill,” Lumsden said.

He also said Senate Bill 377 was another industry-specific bill that, while it didn’t appear to be a major initiative, “needed to be taken care of.”

The measure codifies Kemp’s executive order allowing third-party inspections of certain construction projects, and helps King’s office complete more elevator inspections without increasing his staff.

Other bills signed into law Tuesday were:

HB 893, which lets the Insurance Commissioner’s office collect annual, instead of quarterly, assessments from insurers for the Special Fraud Fund. The move is aimed at reducing paperwork.

SB 188 updates the state’s Credit for Reinsurance Law to reflect new agreements between the U.S. and the European Union and United Kingdom. The update was necessary to maintain accreditation and to avoid federal preemption of Georgia insurance law.