The announcement was made after dinner had been served Wednesday at Phoebe Wyncote, a long-term care facility for seniors in the Montgomery County community of the same name. All 37 residents of the facility’s skilled nursing floor needed to gather their belongings and prepare for a trip north.
One of them, a woman in her 80s, said staffers in masks and long gowns came to bundle her up, put her in a wheelchair, and strap her into a bus with two of her neighbors, spaced out to comply with social distancing, and set off.
“They told us that we were going to be moved. They didn’t ask if we wanted to be,” said the woman, who asked not to be identified because she feared retribution from managers at the facility. “It was mandatory. My family is too far away to do anything about it anyway.”
An hour later, they arrived at Phoebe Allentown, another facility owned by Phoebe Ministries. And the woman was placed in the room she said she will occupy for the next two, or possibly four, weeks because the nonprofit emptied her floor of the Wyncote building after more than two dozen staff members called out sick because of COVID-19.
The relocation comes at a time of mounting national concern about deaths at long-term care facilities, with 17 bodies of COVID-19 patients found earlier this week hidden in storage at a nursing home in New Jersey. In Pennsylvania, nursing facilities account for about half the state’s COVID-19 deaths.
Normally, nursing homes cannot move patients without their permission under federal regulations, said Diane Menio, executive director of the Center for Advocacy for the Rights and Interests of the Elderly, a Philadelphia nonprofit.
“A lot of the regulations have been suspended,” she said. She said it’s been common for nursing homes to move residents to other facilities to isolate residents with COVID-19. “That’s the first time I heard of people getting totally moved,” she said of Phoebe Wyncote.
Phoebe Ministries announced the move Wednesday, but area residents whose loved ones live at the Wyncote location say the plan had been discussed since Monday, as the number of staffers reporting to work continued to dwindle.
What the company has not announced, and declined to tell The Inquirer on Thursday, is how many residents at the Wyncote facility have tested positive for the virus or have died. Montgomery County has had 84 of its residents die from COVID-19 in long-term and other senior-care facilities as of Thursday, 65% of the county’s deaths from the pandemic.
» Help us report about the coronavirus: Do you have a loved one in a long-term care facility for seniors in the Philadelphia region? We want to hear from you about what you’re seeing, how this is affecting you and your families
Phoebe Ministries cleared out only the Wyncote residents requiring the most direct supervision, according to Brynn Buskirk, the company’s vice president of marketing and external relations. An additional 17 personal-care residents and 22 independent-living residents remained in Wyncote, and their families have been given the option to move them out.
Buskirk said the relocation was done to “help ensure we can provide those residents the high-quality care they deserve.”
“We took these important actions in part to allow those members of our Wyncote team impacted by COVID-19 to take the appropriate time to recuperate at home and prepare to return to work,” she said.
Buskirk declined to answer further questions about relocating the 37 seniors or provide the number of staffers who have tested positive for the virus.
Montgomery County Commissioner Val Arkoosh and her colleagues have been providing daily updates on the number of positive cases in the county: 556 cases involving residents, and 315 cases of infected staff members. She has declined to name the facilities, citing privacy concerns.
Insight into life inside these facilities has been difficult to come by. The relocated Phoebe Wyncote resident told The Inquirer that changes to the facility came quickly in the last few weeks.
The dining hall where the more independent residents ate their meals was closed, with meals instead delivered to individual rooms. On her floor, daily exercise included walks up and down the hallway. After COVID-19 struck, residents were told to walk laps inside their apartments.
“A lot of things are changing. I am really concerned about the virus itself,” she said. “You have to sort of be in connection with people who might have it when you’re in a facility like this.”
A woman whose mother has been relocated to Phoebe Allentown said the lack of communication has been the biggest, and most troubling issue.
“Just tell me. Call me and tell me what’s going on,” said the woman, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I won’t wonder. If you have to wonder and have no way of getting an answer, that makes things worse.”