WILLOUGHBY, Ohio — For more than two weeks, family members, employees and residents of a Lake County nursing home have expressed concerns to News 5, and now another relative has come forward with more questions than answers.
While the Ohio Department of Health does not release the number of COVID-19 deaths inside nursing homes, the latest data shows at least 75 residents and 29 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 at Heartland of Willoughby.
Fearful for her loved one’s safety, a Wickliffe woman who did not want to be publicly identified says she's struggled for weeks to get information from staff members after her cousin tested positive for COVID-19 while living at the facility.
“His phone would go unanswered,” the woman said. “We would have to try and reach the nursing staff, say, ‘Please, go in and place the phone by him so he can reach it so we can talk to him.'
“What his condition was, what was happening with him, how he was responding. But once the doors were shut, we had no way of knowing what was really going on with our loved one there.”
She regrets the choice that placed him there.
“It is the buyer’s choice as to where we place our family members and there’s no way of getting appropriate information to make an educated decision,” the concerned relative told News 5.
Those who have spoken out about the nursing home say communication is a frustration.
“My concerns, basically, are the fact that the patient does not have an advocate,” the woman said. “You shouldn’t have to take this to the governor to get some attention from the nursing home regarding the issues at the nursing home.”
News 5 took did take those concerns to the governor, as well as the Ohio Department of Health, the Ohio Attorney General, the Ohio Department of Aging, and Heartland of Willoughby’s managing company.
Gov. Mike DeWine responded with the following answer when questioned by News 5 last week:
“Let me get the full report. We’ll be back on Thursday to specifically answer your question about that nursing home: what happened and maybe what didn’t happen.”
This week, a spokesperson for DeWine said the Ohio Department of Health investigated a complaint at Heartland of Willoughby earlier this month:
“The Ohio Department of Health has investigated a complaint at Heartland of Willoughby during the past month. While complaints are confidential, the survey of that complaint came back unsubstantiated and the facility was found in compliance with Federal Regulations and the State of Ohio license laws. However, while the facility may not have any citations on their survey one week, that doesn’t mean they could not be cited the next week based on what they are seeing at that time.
Ohio Department of Health surveyors are back in the facility and are continuing to investigate protocols. Surveyors completed an Infectious Control and Assessment Response survey along with several ODH infectious disease surveys. Those results are all on the ODH website. The local health department has also been working with the facility since late August, but again, at this time the facility is in compliance with regulations.”
While interviewing the concerned relative from Wickliffe, News 5 witnessed her multiple attempts to contact staff at Heartland of Willoughby via telephone.
“So that’s part of the dilemma,” she said. “Luckily, I’m retired, and I get to sit here all day and do this, but it’s maddening.”
The woman said she will continue to wait on hold and fight for answers regarding her cousin’s care.
“What we’ve seen is shortage of staff, a lack of communication, lack of accountability, lack of professionalism and lack of leadership within the facility itself,” the woman said. “I’ve seen their responses, and their responses are boilerplate responses.”
She’s not satisfied with facility management and is calling for state intervention.
“You know, the thing is, many of us will be there. It’s a dreaded thing to think about end of life and how difficult that end of life can be for people,” she said. “The family has guilt for putting them there in the first place, and then helplessness because there’s nothing you can do. It’s very hard.”
A spokesperson for Heartland of Willoughby told News 5 the facility is working to ensure that a manager is on-call to speak with relatives of residents there.
The Lake County General Health District provided the following written statement when questioned about the ongoing concerns regarding the facility:
“The Lake County General Health District (LCGHD) has been working with Heartland of Willoughby since the latter part of August when Heartland began to identify concerns pertaining to COVID-19. LCGHD arranged for an Infection Control and Assessment Response (ICAR) on September 4, 2020 with Heartland of Willoughby, which is a focused review of infection control practices that is conducted by Ohio Department of Health (ODH). ODH also performed a site visit. ODH is the regulatory authority that is responsible for inspection and licensure of nursing facilities. LCGHD will continue to advise Heartland of Willoughby on COVID-19 isolation, treatment and prevention practices.”