Inside West Virginia's Nursing Homes, The Coronavirus Changed Everything

May 21, 2020

Marie Cramer, a Sundale resident who has tested negative for coronavirus, with her children at Thanksgiving. Joni Roh is on the far left.
Credit Courtesy Joni Roh

The coronavirus has swept like fire through nursing homes across the country, infecting and killing thousands of people. In West Virginia, approximately half of the coronavirus deaths in the state are linked to nursing homes. Sundale Rehabilitation and Long-Term Care in Morgantown had the state’s first documented outbreak of coronavirus in a nursing home when multiple residents tested positive in March.

Joni Roh’s mom, Marie, is among residents at Sundale Rehabilitation and Long-Term Care in Morgantown who have tested negative for coronavirus. Roh and her siblings saw their mom in-person this month for the first time in weeks when they met briefly under the portico of the nursing home for a Mother’s Day visit.

“She had her mask on. She came out. She was happy to see everyone. She looked at each one of us in the eye and told us she loved us,” Roh said.

Roh and her siblings also wore masks and followed social distancing guidelines. It was a brief and bright moment in an otherwise dreary day, after weeks of isolation for Roh’s mom.  

“As soon as she heard that there were people that she knew that tested positive, she got really upset and worried,” said Roh. “And of course, all of the residents are watching the news, so they know what’s going on.”

Betty Emery, mother of Debbie Hayes. Betty was a Sundale resident who died of COVID-19 on April 7, 2020.
Credit courtesy of Debbie Hayes

For Debbie Hayes, the news came early in the outbreak that her mother Betty Emery was among the first residents to test positive for coronavirus in March. Hayes called multiple times each day for updates. She wasn’t allowed to visit due to visitor restrictions in place at the nursing home as a result of the pandemic. 

In early April, her mother’s health declined. She was transferred to a local hospital and died on April 7.  The mother of two and grandmother to seven was 89 years old.

“She was a wonderful mother and a wonderful wife and homemaker, and like I said, that’s the sad part because she had to die alone with no one around her after she had cared for everybody else,” Hayes said. 

Hayes said they had a small funeral. No more than ten people could attend due to restrictions in place at the time. Hayes had to stay six feet away from her other family members. She said they will have a special memorial service for her mother once people can gather.  

Monongalia County’s Health Officer Dr. Lee B. Smith worked with the nursing home to conduct widespread testing at the facility soon after its first positive case was discovered in March.

“We had many people who tested positive but were never symptomatic,” Dr. Smith explained. “So, if you didn’t capture that individual by testing, you would never know.”

Since then, 39 of Sundale’s nearly 100 residents and 15 of its staff have tested positive. Five residents have died. While most have recovered, another five residents are still testing positive for the virus. None are showing symptoms and all are stable at this time, according to Sundale’s Medical Director Dr. Carl Shrader.

Dr. Shrader said widespread testing and isolating positive cases saved lives, but efforts to control the spread of coronavirus in nursing homes don’t end there.

“It shouldn’t give us confidence that we’re safe and to not continue our good infection control measures and screening protocols and just making good judgement about how we operate our building,” said Dr. Shrader. 

Dr. Shrader said he’s worked alongside Sundale’s full-time infection preventionist throughout the outbreak - a position created at the facility in 2018. Sundale’s most recent recertification inspection in July of last year shows the facility had 10 deficiencies including one incident in infection prevention and control. Plans of correction were submitted and approved in September.

Appalachia Health News is a project of West Virginia Public Broadcasting, with support from Marshall Health and Charleston Area Medical Center.