I-TEAM: Hancock County continues to struggle with COVID-19 as state's task force takes note

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Friday, May 22, 2020
News 12 at 6 O'Clock/NBC at 7

(Source: WRDW)

HANCOCK COUNTY, GA (WRDW/WAGT) -- Another day sadly brings another death recorded at Sparta Health and Rehabilitation The death toll at that one facility now stands at 18.

Health records show a grim statistic as Sparta is ranked four out of 400 long-term care facilities in Georgia when it comes to the most COVID-19 deaths.

Dr. Kathleen Toomey with the state's coronavirus task force said Thursday night testing and disinfecting only work when a facility is practicing good infection control.

It’s difficult to fathom the devastation of COVID-19 in a county of only 8,100 people. In just the last four weeks, state health records show 18 patients have died at Sparta Health and Rehabilitation Center.

The numbers coming out of Hancock County are even startling the governor’s coronavirus task force.

“In that particular facility right now today, I have a team of epidemiologists specially trained in infection control going down there, meeting with the staff and also the administrators, to ensure that we identify any issues that are going on so that we can continue to mitigate this," Toomey said.

Toomey sent her team to Hancock County Thursday. The county now has the fourth-highest COVID-19 death rate in the state. The majority of the deaths have happened at Sparta Health and Rehabilitation. One patient has also died at Providence of Sparta Health and Rehab, another nursing home in the county. The National Guard has already disinfected both facilities multiple times, according to the North Central Health District. Toomey said it will take much more in the governor’s news conference on Thursday.

“As I've said many times before, and the governor's remarks reflect that, is that we can test and we can disinfect a facility, but unless they continue with good infection control practices, we're going to continue having these problems," Toomey said.

We reviewed data from Medicare and Medicaid as well as Georgia's Department of Community Health. We found both facilities have struggled with in infection control long before the coronavirus. Overall, Medicare and Medicaid rank Sparta Health and Rehab as below average. In 2018, the state found “the facility failed to practice acceptable infection control practice to prevent cross-contamination by not disposing of blood glucose materials.”

We also analyzed inspection reports for Providence of Sparta Health and Rehab. It has the lowest possible rating with Medicare and Medicaid -- a one star for much below average. An inspection report from last year shows the facility also failed to prevent infection by not providing pressure sore treatment for a resident.

The CDC warned facilities over and over the importance of infection control during the pandemic.

A spokesperson with Providence of Sparta sent us a statement:

Our resident safety is a top priority for us at Providence of Sparta Health & Rehab. We are doing everything we can to ensure we stop the spread of this within our facility including facility wide testing. This week, we have moved 24 residents out of isolation. We are in very close communication with local and state health officials to report testing results, and to ensure we are taking the appropriate steps at this time. Our staff and residents are following the recommended preventative actions, we have restricted visitors from entering our facility, and cancelled all group activities within the building until the virus has been eradicated. We encourage family members to continue to interact with their loved ones by using video chat, calling, or texting.

A spokesperson for Sparta Health and Rehabilitation also sent us a statement:

As you know, the Hancock County community has been hit hard by the virus and, as experts have indicated time and time again, the elderly population of impacted communities are unfortunately the most vulnerable to the virus. The staff of Sparta Health & Rehab has been and will continue to work around the clock to fight this virus, following the recommendations and guidance provided by our state and local health officials, Medical Director and the CDC.

In April 2019, the CMS made several changes to its Five-Star Quality Rating System to help consumers evaluate skilled nursing care centers. Featured on the Nursing Home Compare website, the star ratings are based on three components—survey data, staffing information, and quality metrics. These most recent changes included updating thresholds for assigning stars (or moving the “goal posts” back) for both the staffing and quality components of the system that abruptly caused significant changes. An estimated 44 percent of all nursing centers lost stars in their Quality ratings, 31 percent lost stars in their Staffing ratings, and approximately 34 percent lost stars in their Overall ratings.

While Sparta Health & Rehabilitation has been able to maintain their three-star rating in quality (related in part to ongoing submission of quality data), please note that the center’s most recent on-site review by CMS was in August 2018 (survey data). While a CMS survey team may come in when CMS receives complaints about a nursing home, Sparta Health & Rehabilitation has not received any reports of complaint concerns.

Sparta Health & Rehabilitation is dedicated to the care and wellbeing of the patients and committed to their employees during this challenging pandemic.

Gov. Brian Kemp is pushing the General Assembly to pass a bill that will help protect residents of long-term care facilities when the session reconvenes in a few weeks. The bill would require increased staffing and stiffen fines for violations.