Citing medical privacy laws, officials at both the Department of Health and the Department of Human Services said they could neither confirm nor deny that a person who worked at both the Queen Louise Home for the Aged and the Housing Authority’s Lucinda Millin Home recently became infected with COVID-19.
“Know that we cannot share information about any specified employee[s],” said Michelle Francis, director of Strategic Operations and Planning for Human Services, in response to phone and email inquiries.
“As you are aware from prior releases and reports, CNAs, nursing staff, security staff, drivers, etc., often round at a number of facilities on all islands. Therefore, what is most important to note is that DHS, VIHA, the hospitals and all public facilities are guided by the Department of Health and best practices on mitigation,” said Francis, via email. “While the fact remains that people must leave their homes and face risk of exposure as they go to work, shop for food, etc., our facilities have instituted DOH and CDC best practices and guidelines around those realities.”
The Source received conflicting information about a possible infection, in one instance being told that it was a certified nursing assistant who worked shifts at both homes for six days while exhibiting a cough and complaining to co-workers of exhaustion, but in another that it was a Human Services worker helping to conduct COVID-19 swabs.
Concern about spreading the virus in vulnerable populations grew after an outbreak at the Queen Louise Home for the Aged last month resulted in 12 infections and four deaths. That led Gov. Albert Bryan Jr. to implement the territory’s second Stay-at-Home order since March. It is due to be lifted on Tuesday after being extended one week.
Francis, in an email on Friday representing both the Health Department and Human Services and copied to the Housing Authority and Government House, confirmed that as of Sept. 3, “there are NO other cases in residents at congregate living facilities. We are always concerned, and the Department of Health is working closely with DHS to implement more training and best practices for prevention as these facilities house our most vulnerable populations.”
Francis added, “Please also keep in mind that as tests are administered and results come in, the data can change from one hour to the next.”
To that end, Human Services is monitoring all residents at Queen Louise on St. Thomas and the Herbert Grigg Home for the Aged on St. Croix and retesting every three to six days to ensure negatives remain negative, Francis said. “If a negative becomes positive then they are also quickly quarantined away from others.”
The Lucinda Millin Home has not had any resident or employee infections to date, according to Patricia Borns, public relations officer for the Housing Authority. Testing was conducted at the home and at the Authority’s Celestino A. White Sr. Senior Citizens Residence in mid-August, in cooperation with the Health Department and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The results of those tests were negative.
A redacted, internal Department of Human Services memo shows the information that went to all DHS staff after a confirmed positive at one of its facilities. “It is a sample like many others sent regarding workplace expectations in this time of COVID-19,” Francis said. “It speaks to the efforts we make on a daily basis to reduce the spread of COVID-19.”
The crux of the matter is how to prevent community spread by employees who may be asymptomatic, who may continue to work even if they feel unwell because they don’t think they have COVID-19, or because they need a paycheck at a time when many are facing an economic cliff due to layoffs and closures during the pandemic.
“DOH’s Congregate Living Facilities Testing Plan includes testing every 14 days of staff and any resident that may have left the facility within the previous two weeks for procedures or tests,” said Francis. Staff also have their temperatures taken daily before entering any facility, must wear masks and complete a self-assessment survey regarding any known exposure, said Francis, who provided a redacted memo as an example of the information distributed to workers following a staff infection in August.
These precautions, however, rely on the honor of the people reporting, or to even know they are infected, both Health and Human Services acknowledged.
Fully 21 percent of positive cases in the territory are asymptomatic, according to Health Department statistics reported on Saturday.
“Some may not have a fever and choose not to disclose any other symptoms they may be experiencing,” said Francis. “Policies and procedures provide clear guidance on behavioral expectations and put in place consequences for not observing those policies and procedures, but they cannot, in themselves, determine an individual’s choice to follow the rules.”
In light of this, Francis said both Health and Human Services are focused on “education, reeducation and supervisor or managerial walk-throughs at facilities for enforcement.”
Health’s Epidemiology Division has coordinated staff training in both districts – including for those who provide services at the Housing Authority’s Lucinda Millin and Whim Gardens facilities – in infectious disease control and the proper use of personal protection equipment such as masks, and has continued to do so “as we navigate the new normal of the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Francis.
Additionally, “The V.I. Team Lead for the Region 3 COVID-19 Response, Dr. Caroline Schott, MPH, MD, epidemiologist, conducted an Infection Prevention Control Assessment for the Queen Louise Home and the Herbert Grigg Home. Both assessments were completed with the goal to prevent the spread of COVID-19 within the Homes for the Aged. The assessment teams reviewed policy and procedures, PPE stock and use by employees, identified positive practices and made recommendations for quality infection control practices,” said Francis.
“PPEs, which are in high demand, have been purchased by the Department of Human Services and/or provided by the Department of Health, Virgin Islands Territorial Emergency Management Agency and donated by local organizations and community groups. We are truly blessed with a giving community at this time,” said Francis.
While acknowledging that Human Services is working with the Health Department and guidance from the CDC “to do our part to slow the spread of the virus and to try to protect residents, clients and staff,” said Francis, the fact remains that “until there is an effective vaccine and as long as people leave their homes, there is no guarantee of not being exposed and infected. Therefore, we empower all of our staff to abide by all precautionary measures to keep ourselves and those we live with, work with and interact with safe.”