One Thursday in May, Eric Fogle kept vigil outside the Holliswood Center for Rehabilitation and Healthcare in Queens in honor of the patients, colleagues and family members who had lost their battle with COVID-19.
Fogle, a 53-year-old activities aide at the facility and an 1199SEIU union rep, was among those mourning a food-service worker at the facility who'd recently died. One colleague was mourning two family members.
Another had lost his best friend.
Fogle got sick with COVID-19 in March but has since recovered and returned to work. He said it hasn't been easy for the staff to go in with the disease spreading through the facility. His colleagues took notice when NY1 listed Holliswood among the five facilities with the highest number of deaths at one point last month. (It no longer holds that distinction.)
"That's a list nobody wants to be on," Fogle said.
Residents in nursing homes—and the staff who care for them—have been among the hardest hit by COVID-19. They represent an outsize portion of deaths from the disease. About 5,900 residents have died in New York's nursing homes, or about 20% of the 29,500 who have or are presumed to have died from COVID-19 in the state as of May 26, according to data from the state and Johns Hopkins University. Nursing home residents make up about 1.2% of New York's population.
The facilities were always expected to be vulnerable. Nursing home residents are older and typically need round-the-clock care. They frequently battle multiple chronic conditions, such as high blood pressure. State data show 90% of people who died of COVID-19 had at least one existing chronic illness.
That vulnerability was well known to public officials. As early as their March 2 joint press conference, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio highlighted nursing homes and other senior housing facilities as an area of emphasis. Cuomo, whose Department of Health is responsible for regulating the facilities, had described COVID-19 in nursing homes as "fire in dry grass." But public health officials struggled to get outbreaks within facilities under control.
As the state enters its fourth month battling the virus, senior facilities are looking back on how the pandemic was able to take such a toll—and working to make sure something like this never happens again.
The need for hospital capacity in the early days of the outbreak led the Cuomo administration to make one of its biggest mistakes of the crisis. On March 25 the state Department of Health sent a letter to nursing homes ordering them to accept COVID-19-positive patients from hospitals.
"No resident shall be denied readmission or admission to [a home] solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19," it read.
The directive described an "urgent need" to expand hospital capacity. Hospitals were required to confirm to nursing homes that patients were medically stable before transferring them.