As 2 more die, Essex Center company moves test lab in-house

ELIZABETHTOWN — Two more residents of the Essex Center nursing home and rehabilitation facility have died from COVID-19, the Essex County Health Department reported Wednesday, Sept. 9.

The deaths came as the company that operates the home, Centers Health Care, announced that it has transitioned to in-house lab processing in an effort to speed up turnaround time for test results.

Altogether, 10 center residents have died from COVID-19. At least 98 others with a connection to the facility — staff, residents and community members who have come in contact with staff — have tested positive for COVID-19.

Centers Health Care announced its transition to in-house testing 23 days after its Elizabethtown nursing home experienced its first resident death from COVID-19, a 65-year-old woman named Judy Frennier-Ryan.

Asked why the transition to in-house testing didn’t happen sooner, Centers Health Care spokesman Jeff Jacomowitz said the company had been in the process of developing in-house testing. He said Centers Health Care was “discouraged by the lag time that was happening.”

“We were discouraged about all of this,” he said. “We can’t just go on like this anymore. It’s about saving lives.”

The outbreak at Essex Center was first discovered when a series of events unfolded in quick succession, all on Aug. 17. On that day, the nursing home received positive test results for three of its employees. Those employees were tested as part of the facility’s state-mandated weekly testing regime, but these tests had been administered on July 28 and July 29 — the positive results took upward of 19 days to get back. In the meantime, the employees had reported to work as usual because they didn’t have symptoms, according to Grace Pfordresher, regional director of Centers Health Care. That same day brought the facility’s first resident death from COVID-19, and the discovery that the residents’ roommate also had symptoms of COVID-19.

Pfordresher said last month that before that death, no residents of the nursing home were exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19.

After that first death — which was also the first recorded COVID-19 death in Essex County — every employee and resident was tested, as were many close contacts of employees. The subsequent bouts of testing uncovered even more positive cases.

“We feel that bringing the testing in-house will save precious lives,” Jacomowitz said in a statement. “This new business methodology is a major step in the right direction as we move into the fall flu season.”

Some tests will continue to be outsourced, however.

Centers Health Care has the capacity to process 800 tests per day, and the company is in the process of ramping up that capacity to 3,200 tests per day, the company said in a news release. Tests beyond that capacity will be sent to other labs that should return results within 48 hours.

“Outsourcing to various labs that were giving a turnaround time of seven-plus days could not be tolerated any further since so many lives depend upon the test results,” the company’s news release reads.

As of Wednesday, there were six active cases of COVID-19 countywide, according to the Essex County Health Department. That’s one new case — unrelated to the Essex Center outbreak — since Tuesday.