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I-TEAM: COVID-19’s impacts on nursing homes are greater than just illness

Published: Aug. 27, 2020 at 6:19 PM EDT|Updated: Aug. 30, 2020 at 2:39 PM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. (WRDW/WAGT) - It’s now been six long months since families have been able to visit their loved ones in nursing homes. Fear of the virus led state leaders to suspend visitation in long-term care facilities in March, but keeping visitors out has not kept COVID-19 out.

There are now more confirmed cases in nursing homes than in May. Deaths from the virus also back on the rise.

More than 2,100 nursing home patients have died in Georgia and nearly a thousand in South Carolina. Locally, we’ve lost more than 150 of our own to the virus.

South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster sent a letter to the state agency which oversees nursing homes last week. In his letter, he asks DHEC to come up with up to date visitation guidelines for long term facilities, stating “as expected, this separation and isolation has caused loneliness, stress, and anxiety among residents.”

It’s not just COVID that’s killing nursing home patients. It’s isolation and loneliness.

They say the most painful goodbyes are the ones never said and never explained.

“She would say, ‘Why can’t you come in and check on me?’” Randy Tillman said.

It’s more painful when you can’t explain why you couldn’t even say hello.

“I’d say, ’Well, Barbara, with this COVID we can’t come in right now,” Tillman said.

“A lot of times, I would see her break down and cry. That hurt me real bad.”

Tillman knows the hurt of not holding his wife’s hand in six months.

“She was a powerful woman of God,” Tillman said.

He knows the hurt of a pane of glass separating him from the love of his life.

“Sometimes I would just stand at the window and pray a prayer,” Tillman said.

Tillman would even visit his wife through the window numerous times a day to help with her loneliness.

Now, he knows the hurt of finding his wife of 22 years alone and gone.

On July 30, Tillman went to say good morning to Barbara.

“They didn’t know the blind was open,” Tillman said. “It was just open a little bit. Her lips had turned another color. I knew she was dead.”

At first, Tillman was never informed Barbara had passed away. He called over and over again, but no one would answer the phone.

“It was about 8:38 when they came in,” Tillman said.

“I looked at her dead until almost 8:30.”

Barbara Tillman, 76, died of COVID 19. Randy learned she tested positive two weeks before she passed away.

“I asked the question, ‘Y’all can’t send her anywhere?’ And she told me, ‘There’s nothing we can do,’” Tillman said.

Barbara is one of 14 patients at PruittHealth Swainsboro to die from the virus since July 24.

Data from the Department of Public Health shows 52 patients and 31 staff members are currently infected.

The communications department at PruittHealth wrote this in a prepared statement:

PruittHealth released this statement on the matter.
PruittHealth released this statement on the matter.(WRDW)

“The alert code for this center escalated to red on July 23, meaning there were no known positive or presumptive positive COVID-19 patients until that time. As part of our commitment to caring, PruittHealth Swainsboro has been strictly following enhanced infection control protocols throughout the pandemic. We actively monitor staffing levels and appropriate supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE).”

Medicare rates the facility overall as five stars, but the federal government cannot verify staffing numbers because either facility did not submit the data, reported a high number of days without a registered nurse on-site, or submitted data that could not be verified.

Other families are concerned about their loved ones at PruittHealth Swainsboro, too.

A daughter of another resident sent us a copy of this complaint she filed with the Department of Community Health or DCH. She writes she found out about the outbreak before PruittHealth issued a code red for the facility.

A DCH complaint sent in by a viewer.
A DCH complaint sent in by a viewer.(WRDW)

“I was called and told my loved one has COVID, was moved to thre different rooms, that no patient was given nor wearing masks, and that the staff wears the same gowns, masks, gloves administering meds to all patients because they didn’t have PPE. I am fearful that my family member who I have been denied access will die.”

We asked DCH for an update on this complaint. The agency replied:

“We do not release such information. Complaints received by DCH are acknowledged to the complainant and the complainant is notified once the inspection is completed.”

Barbara Tillman died alone without her husband and without her sisters.

“She would tell me every time, ‘Phyllis you don’t love me anymore. You won’t even come see me,’” sister Phyllis Strobridge said. “I said, ‘Barb, I want to come, but they won’t let me come in.’”

Strobridge and Mickey King could not be there for the older sister who always there for them.

“When they feel like you just put them out there and forgot about them -- they give -- there’s no reason to live,” Strobridge said.

“She lost hope,” King said.

They lost the sister who raised them.

“She was my best friend. She was my ride or die,” Strobridge said.

Tillman lost the love of his life.

“I am really going to miss her,” Tillman said.

And the community lost a woman of faith who struggled even herself to find hope within the lonely walls of a nursing home.

The federal government said nursing homes could reopen to visitors in May, but first, all patients and staff had to be tested. Both Georgia and South Carolina say they have completed the state-wide testing. But another factor preventing nursing homes from opening is how widespread the virus still is within communities. The White House issued a warning earlier this month that the virus is spreading in Georgia, where PruittHealth Swainsboro is located.

Copyright 2020 WRDW/WAGT. All rights reserved.

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