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Federal Inspectors Take Rare Step Of Investigating COVID-19 Outbreak At Beaver Co. Nursing Home

Sarah Boden
90.5 WESA
United States Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar speaking to press at the Heritage Valley Beaver Hospital in Beaver Co. on Friday, May 29, 2020.

Federal investigators will soon release a report on what led to the novel coronavirus outbreak at the Brighton Rehabilitation and Wellness Center.

That is according to the United States Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar, who discussed Brighton while visiting nearby Heritage Valley Beaver Hospital in Beaver County on Friday afternoon. 

“There’s not an excuse for infections spreading like wildfire throughout a nursing home," Azar said. "That suggests that you’re not engaged in the basic types of infection control, isolation of patients and appropriate use of personal protective equipment."

More than 75 Brighton residents have died from COVID-19, making it the worst outbreak at a long-term care facility in Pennsylvania. 

Azar said it was "rare" for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services [CMS] to investigate a skilled nursing center, as oversight of such facilities is primarily within a state’s purview. The secretary did not say exactly how unique of a step it was.

This spring, CMS looked into an outbreak at a Seattle-area nursing facility, which was the site of one of the earliest coronavirus outbreaks in the U.S. The investigationresulted in a $611,000 fine.

While speaking with the press, Azar questioned whether Pennsylvania has been aggressive enough in taking action regarding Brighton’s past violations.

“A lot of our cases of outbreaks [nationally] are in skilled nursing facilities,” he said. “We need our governors and our state health commissioners to pay more attention to our nursing homes. These are our most fragile, vulnerable citizens to severe complications and death from COVID-19.”

Earlier this month Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf sent the national guard to Brighton to provide support and patient care. The state's Department of Human Services also appointed a New Jersey-based company to temporarily takeover management of the facility. 

Many nursing home residents pay for their care with Medicaid payments through CMS. The federal government has been criticized for underfunding the program, ultimately leading skilled nursing facilities to underpay and overwork staff.

“We will certainly be looking at the rules, regulations and funding streams from CMS for nursing homes," Azar said. "But the simple fact is that there are many nursing homes who take care of seniors that do not have this type of rampant outbreak in fatalities. There are regulations about staffing ratios and quality of care.”

Reopening The Country

Azar also addressed concerns about the downstream health impacts of COVID-19 mitigation efforts. For example, non-emergency care was postponed, which allowed medical systems to prepare for possible surges of patients.

“We have to balance the health risk of the virus against the health risks of foregoing all this necessary medical care. As well as the health risks of social isolation and economic downturn,” he said.

Many public health officials and experts worry that lifting too many physical distancing mandates too soon will lead to a dangerous spike in COVID-19 illnesses.