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Littleton nursing home draws rebuke from officials for its COVID-19 response

Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley in neighboring Littleton has joined the ranks of nursing homes across the state facing severe outbreaks of COVID-19. Two cases were reported there March 27, rising to 17 by April 1 (nine residents and eight staff) with one death. As of April 6, following the National Guard’s testing of all residents last weekend, the toll stood at five deaths and 65 residents who tested positive for the virus. Fourteen of those who tested positive had been hospitalized.

Life Care Centers of America also operated the facility in Kirkland, Washington, the site of the first major outbreak of COVID-19 cases in the United States.

After the first reports of the outbreak in Littleton, neither the Littleton Board of Health nor the Nashoba Associated Boards of Health was satisfied with the information Life Care was providing them. James Garreffi, the director of public health at NABH, wrote to the branch of the state Department of Public Health that licenses and oversees nursing homes March 31, saying he was concerned about Life Care’s “lack of cooperation” with his office. “We weren’t getting enough information to allow us to do our job,” Garreffi said later at a public meeting.

Family members of residents were also having trouble getting information, according to a Harvard resident who has a parent at Life Care of Nashoba Valley. “They’ve gone dark,” she said in a telephone interview earlier this week. “Nobody is contacting us.” The resident asked to remain anonymous out of concern for her parent’s treatment at the facility. She said she first found out about COVID-19 cases at the facility from a friend who heard it on the news, not from Life Care.

“Life [Care] Centers of America corporate executives have not been responsive or forthcoming, which makes my blood boil,” state Sen. Jamie Eldridge wrote in an April 2 Facebook post about the situation.

Eldridge, Littleton’s state Rep. Jim Arciero, and U.S. Rep. Lori Trahan partnered with Littleton town officials and the state Department of Public Health to call for the Massachusetts National Guard to test residents for the virus. All 85 residents were tested Friday, April 3, as confirmed both by town officials and by an announcement from Life Care. Those results were released by Life Care in a memo dated April 6, showing five deaths, 65 positive tests, 31 negatives, and two results still pending.

However, the National Guard was not allowed to test Life Care staff, Garreffi said at an emergency joint meeting of Littleton’s Board of Health and Board of Selectmen held via Zoom Saturday, April 4. Life Care asserted the governor had said only patients were to be tested, not staff, according to Joseph Knox, chair of Littleton’s Board of Selectmen.

Garreffi also told officials at the meeting that he had drafted an order to forbid removing residents from the facility before the virus test results come back, unless the removal is a medical necessity. Life Care of Nashoba Valley had agreed to call the district’s public health nurse every afternoon with an update, he said, which would allow NABH to trace contacts and require quarantine if necessary.

Garreffi and members of the Board of Health acknowledged they had little control over the Life Care facility; they did not have the authority to require virus testing, for example. Appealing to the state Department of Public Health was their best course, they agreed, because it could revoke the facility’s license.

Sen. Eldridge, who also attended the Zoom meeting, said a constituent whose relative worked at Life Care told him there were only eight employees caring for all the residents. The Harvard resident cited earlier also expressed concerns about understaffing. As of April 6, Life Care reported 20 employees were out sick.

On Tuesday this week, the Littleton selectmen joined Eldridge, Arciero, and Trahan in writing to Beecher Hunter, president of Life Care Centers, calling on the company to report all cases to public health authorities and to test all workers at the Littleton center. “To be clear,” they wrote, “we would regard any evasion of LCCA’s responsibilities to protect the residents in your care—and who are particularly vulnerable to COVID-19—as a shocking betrayal of residents and their families as well as LCCA’s dedicated employees.”

Debbie Thompson, director of Harvard’s Council on Aging, said she didn’t know of any Harvard residents who are now patients at Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley. And it is not known how many people in Harvard have family members in the facility.

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