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Essex County asks elder homes to stop visitation

ELIZABETHTOWN — The Essex County Board of Supervisors has asked all elder homes in this county to close their doors to visitors.

The request comes as a nursing home and rehabilitation facility in the county seat, Essex Center, faces a deadly outbreak that has taken the lives of four people and increased the county’s number of active COVID-19 cases by tenfold in the last week.

“We are requesting that each of your facilities suspend all visitation for a period of 14 days,” Board of Supervisors Chairman Shaun Gillilland wrote in a letter Tuesday. The letter was sent to Elderwood of Uihlein at Lake Placid, Essex Center in Elizabethtown, Elderwood and Montcalm Manor in Ticonderoga, Champlain Valley Senior Community in Willsboro, the Keene Valley Neighborhood House and Saranac Village at Will Rogers in Saranac Lake.

“We are using an abundance of caution, but this disease is insidious and lethal when it gets into nursing and elder care facilities,” Gillilland wrote. “I realize this is a significant hardship, especially on your residents, but we need to take all measures to protect our most vulnerable.”

The executive director of Saranac Village at Will Rogers, Jamie Whidden, told families of residents in an email Tuesday that visits, which had been allowed outdoors, are temporarily suspended. Residents can still see visitors through a window, however. Residents will only be allowed to leave the facility for medically urgent appointments. Inside the facility, communal dining is still being offered, “but this may not happen in the near future,” Whidden said.

“Please note that this (Essex Center) outbreak represents the worst COVID-19 infection rate we have seen in our area since the pandemic started and this poses a significant danger to the residents living here,” Whidden wrote.

Elderwood of Uihlein also notified its community Tuesday that it would comply with the county’s request and suspend visitation for at least 14 days.

“We will contact families directly as soon as we are permitted to resume limited visitation,” reads a post on the facility’s Facebook page.

The director of the Keene Valley Neighborhood House wasn’t immediately available to comment on Wednesday, but staff members confirmed that the nursing home had also suspended visitations.

In a statement, Essex County Public Health Director Linda Beers backed the Board of Supervisors’ decision to ask for a temporary stay on visitations.

“We support this decision by Chairman Gillilland and the Board of Supervisors,” Beers said. “We are taking extra precautions for this population, because the data shows that they are much more vulnerable to serious illness from COVID-19. We want to prevent further infections and limit the impact to our surrounding communities.”

Nursing home residents are among the highest-risk populations amid the coronavirus pandemic. As of Aug. 13, more than 402,000 people at some 17,000 facilities across the country have been infected by the coronavirus, the New York Times reported. At least 68,000 people have died as of Aug. 13, accounting for roughly 41% of total COVID-19 deaths in the United States.

The total number of positive cases connected to the outbreak at Essex Center rose to 62 on Tuesday. Of those, 28 are staff, 33 are nursing home residents, and one is a community member who came in contact with a staff member, according to the health department. Nursing home residents who test positive are being housed in a part of the facility reserved for COVID-19 patients.

As of Tuesday, four Essex Center patients had died. These are the county’s only COVID-19 deaths since the pandemic began in March.

In neighboring Franklin County, the Mercy Living Center nursing home and rehab facility in Tupper Lake temporarily closed its doors to visitors last week.

Some hospitals have done the same, including Adirondack Medical Center in Saranac Lake and Elizabethtown Community Hospital.