'We're looking for closure, not for blame':
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus targeted one of the most vulnerable populations as it spread through nursing homes across the country.
COVID-19 claimed more than 4,200 lives in Georgia nursing homes as of the May 18th report from the Georgia Department of Public Health.
"She just died alone, and that is heartbreaking," says Sarah Powers. Her mother Christine Etheredge died in May 2020 at the PruittHealth facility in Forsyth. Etheredge had been there for nearly two years with dementia.
"We found out they put her in a wing in the nursing home that had COVID patients, and we didn't know that until it was too late."
Powers and her daughter Heather Miller shared an email with 13WMAZ that they received from the nursing home after Etheredge's death. It says a resident and staff member tested positive for COVID-19 on May 4th and that Powers' mother tested positive a few days later. The email notes they contacted a family member about the test, but Powers and Miller say that is not true.
"We're looking for closure, not for blame," says Miller. "With COVID and them being so busy, maybe somebody didn't write something down. Maybe somebody thought they called somebody, but they've called ten other people in the last 20 minutes."
It is a storyline that played out time and time again throughout the pandemic. Many loved ones died alone in nursing homes and their families just wanted more answers.
In Central Georgia alone, 468 people died in nursing homes as of the May 6th report from the Georgia Department of Public Health. That makes up roughly 11% of nursing homes deaths statewide.
Bibb County had the highest number of nursing home deaths in central Georgia with 100, meaning one out of every four deaths in the county happened at a long-term care facility.
Houston County reported 40 deaths in nursing homes, making up one out of every five COVID-19 deaths there.
When compared to some other parts of the state, Central Georgia as a whole had relatively low numbers. The death tolls in nursing homes from just Fulton and DeKalb counties combined totaled more than for all of central Georgia long-term care facilities. Fulton County had the highest death toll in the metro-Atlanta area with just under 300 deaths in nursing homes.
Throughout the pandemic, Governor Brian Kemp released several orders outlining safety guidelines for long-term care facilities. Many of the safety measures come from guidance by the CDC and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The most recent order outlines measures like wearing PPE, testing protocols for residents and staff, and best practices for allowing visitors.
13WMAZ contacted several nursing homes in central Georgia with the highest death tolls to ask about their specific safety protocols moving forward. These nursing homes did not return our calls: Dublinair Health and Rehab, Macon Rehabilitation and Healthcare, Pinewood Manor Nursing Home and Rehabilitation, and Georgia War Veterans Home.
An administrator with Heart of Georgia Nursing Home in Dodge County spoke with us briefly by phone, but only to say they had not reported any COVID-19 deaths in four months since residents started getting vaccinated.
PruittHealth reported some of the highest COVID-19 case numbers across their facilities at the start of the pandemic. A spokesperson said they did not have time to answer our questions in an interview but did send a report outlining the more than $23 million the company invested in fighting the virus over the last year.
The report says PruittHealth hired 60 infection preventionists in 2020 with plans to hire more in 2021. The company also spent half a million dollars to create an emergency operations center to help families get information about their loved ones' care. Among other things, the report mentions facilities scheduled more than 55,000 video calls between residents and their families.
Powers and Miller say they wish some of those safety measures and investments would have been in place before their loved one died from the virus, especially the ability to video chat with their mother and grandmother one more time.
"I loved her and I'd thank her for all she'd done, but we didn't get to tell her that," says Powers.
The PruittHealth facility in Forsyth where Etheredge died only reported nine deaths out of the 58 residents who tested positive for the virus.