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Her Nursing Home Got 5 Stars, but She and Dozens More Got Coronavirus

Nina Brown's son worries that even frequent testing won't protect long-term care residents

spinner image Nina brown with her son michael
Nina Brown with her son, Michael
Courtesy Michael Brown
spinner image Nina brown modeling in her 20s
Nina Brown during her days as a model.
Courtesy Michael Brown

Nina Brown, 87, is feisty and always has been. She chats up everyone around her, won't put up with nonsense and is quick to share an opinion or dole out orders. It's why her son Michael, who used to care for her in his home, calls her “the mayor of her facility.”

Nina has lived at Crofton Care & Rehabilitation Center, in Crofton, Maryland, for 3 1/2 years. She's a two-time cancer survivor with various chronic conditions. Her declining mobility necessitated the move to a nursing home when it became clear that her 57-year-old son couldn't give her all the care she needed. The facility, located just west of Annapolis, has a five-star rating from Medicare and has been recognized by Newsweek as the second-best nursing home in Maryland.

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But as Michael has learned, coronavirus doesn't care about nursing home ratings. He first learned the pandemic entered Crofton Care not from anyone official but from his mother. A magnet for intel, she phoned to tell him that two physical therapists had tested positive. He's always been happy with the staff and clinical care, but says the lapse in communication from the home's higher-ups raised concerns.

Michael, an attorney, says he began leaning on administrators for information, arguing that he shouldn't have to rely on his mother to tell him what's going on and that they have “an ethical and moral obligation to let every family know that there are cases in the center.” Since then, he says, their communication — while not perfect — has improved. He now gets emails whenever there's a new case.

There have been 78 cases among residents, with 14 deaths, and 26 more positive cases among staff, according to the latest data from the Maryland Department of Health.

Before a federal ban on nursing home visitations went into effect in March, Michael, who lives 15 minutes away and works from home, saw his mother daily. She also enjoyed regular visits from her two other sons, a niece and a nephew. Even Michael's childhood friends would swing by to see “Ms. Nina.” The former New York City public school administrator was the go-to mom when any of them had problems growing up. She gave unfiltered advice, reminded everyone to stay out of trouble and kept them on track. One of Michael's friend's kids call her “Grandma Nina.”

When the virus interrupted her stream of visitors, Michael bought her a GrandPad, an easy-to-use tablet designed for older users, to keep her connected. She held court in her room by way of video and phone conversations, fielding calls from cousins, friends, her sons and her sons’ friends throughout the day. Michael, who spoke to her after each meal, says she is well-aware of the pandemic. “She sits and watches the news all day,” he said. “She knows nursing homes are just places where people are like sitting ducks.”

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A worst fear comes true

He encouraged her to stay vigilant about her health and took comfort in hearing her reports about the staff's safety measures. “They have raincoats on and gloves and masks,” his mother told him. “I don't know who's talking to me.” Then she learned one of her friends in the home had died of the virus and grew more nervous.

In late April, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan announced universal testing for residents and staff in all state nursing homes, a move Michael welcomed. Nearly a month later, the testing happened at Crofton Care and Nina's results were negative. But less than a week later, she ran a fever, started vomiting and had pain in her lower extremities. She was put into an isolation unit, and Michael's worst fear was realized: His mother tested positive. With typical feistiness, she insisted to doctors that she was fine and complained to her son about the sick people around her.

After six days in the hospital on oxygen, fighting a slight case of pneumonia, she returned to isolation in the nursing home. Nina moved back into her room at the end of June. Now, on occasion, she gets out to the courtyard for breaks to bask in the sun. Her son is relieved she's on the other side of the virus but fears she might catch it again. “I have no confidence that she's totally protected,” he says.

There was another spike in cases at Crofton Care, Michael says, after his mother tested positive. For that reason, he says, the nursing home had a second round of mandatory testing of all staff and residents. Starting several weeks ago, he says, the facility implemented weekly testing.

AARP reached out repeatedly to Crofton Care but got no reply. A July 8 letter to family members, the most recent coronavirus update on the nursing home's website, offered good news. “As COVID-19 cases continue to increase across the nation, we are very happy to report that we have had no new cases in the past 16 days and have no active cases of COVID-19 in the facility,” Philip Gordon, the administrator, wrote. “We will continue our weekly resident and staff testing until we have two consecutive weeks of testing with no new cases.”

At that point, Gordon added, only employees will be tested each week. Since the letter published, six new positive cases — two residents and four staff members — have been reported.

Michael is grateful for the increased testing but says he is, at best, “cautiously optimistic.” Employees who “still need to go out and live their lives” won't be tested daily and can't guarantee they won't be exposed to the virus. And once the home begins to slowly open up to visitors, who may be asymptomatic, there's no telling what may follow. “I just see that as a disaster,” he says. “But I also understand, on the other hand, that people want to see their loved ones. It's a really difficult balance."

This article grew out of our effort to collect stories of people with loved ones in nursing homes. Share your story.

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