NYC nursing homes have been the worst hit, but upstate facilities in Hornell, Brighton, Hopewell and more have seen deaths

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These may be the darkest hours that many New York nursing homes have ever faced. Despite weeks of warning, a slew of emergency directives from Albany and much careful preparation, the coronavirus has slipped into more than half of the state’s elder-care facilities.

Through Saturday, almost 2,800 nursing home residents had died of COVID-19, as had more than 630 residents of assisted and independent living facilities. They comprised more than 10 percent of all deaths recorded in the United States from the coronavirus.

The overwhelming epicenter has been metropolitan New York City, where 95 percent of the state's elder-care deaths have been recorded.

But a few hot spots have flared in upstate New York as well. Fifty-four deaths have been recorded in Erie County, including a dozen at the Garden Gate Health Care Facility.

Six people have died in the Ontario Center for Rehabilitation and Healthcare, a privately owned nursing home in Hopewell. The deaths were confirmed by the Ontario County health department.

The deaths of three residents of a senior-care facility in Wyoming County have been disclosed there by the county government, which operates the center.

The Avon Nursing Home in Livingston County, which is owned by Hurlbut, has seen three residents and two staff members test positive, with one resident dying. That small outbreak was confirmed by Livingston County administrator Ian Coyle.

What may be one of the worst clusters of COVID-19 cases between Buffalo and Albany is another home owned by the Hurlbut company.

At least 46 residents of Hornell Gardens in Steuben County have contracted COVID-19 there, as have a number of employees. At least four residents have died; Hornell Gardens was not on the state list released Saturday of homes with five or more deaths.

At another Hurlbut facility in Monroe County, dozens of vulnerable elderly residents and staff members have been infected. Mass testing has been employed to identify residents at The Hurlbut Nursing & Rehabilitation Center in Brighton carrying the virus. Attempts to confine the infection to one portion of the home failed, and residents who tested negative have been evacuated to another nursing home. The 160-bed Hurlbut has become a quarantine ward, its beds filled with senior citizens either known to be suffering from COVID-19 or suspected of having it.

The families of eight people who resided at The Hurlbut have confirmed their loved ones contracted the coronavirus there and died and those names are yet to appear on the state list of nursing home facilities which was last updated April 19. (St. John's Home is the only Rochester-area facility on the current state list, which shows eight deaths at the home.)

The one-story building off East Henrietta Road is owned by Hurlbut Care Communities, a private for-profit company headquartered on East Avenue in Rochester that has been operated by one family for four generations. The home is well-regarded and has earned a good rating from the state Department of Health.

In previous remarks to the Democrat and Chronicle, Hurlbut Care Communities president Robert W. Hurlbut acknowledged that some, but not all, of his company’s 13 upstate New York nursing homes have had COVID-19 cases. He declined to discuss resident deaths or the number of residents who have contracted COVID-19 in his nursing homes.

Families kept in the dark

Families of Hornell Gardens residents say they’ve been kept in the dark, and employees at the home have publicly complained several times about not having enough protective masks and gloves. Several reportedly have quit, making staffing shortages worse.

A woman in Hornell, Amber Mae Updyke, said in a Facebook post Saturday, April 11, that her sister, an employee of the center, had fallen ill and been sampled for coronavirus — but was allowed to return to work before the results came back.

After the test showed she was positive, she was called back into work again before her symptoms worsened a few hours later and she joined her family at home in quarantine, Updyke wrote.

On Wednesday, the Steuben County Health Department announced it had worked with Hurlbut Care Communities and the state Department of Health to devise a plan to ensure "we stop the spread of COVID-19 within Hornell Gardens," as Robert W. Hurlbut put it.

The agency arranged coronavirus testing of every resident and staffer in the facility, the first time such a thing had been done in Steuben County. The goal was to "to ensure all potentially pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic cases were identified before additional transmission could occur. The majority of cases detected as part of this rapid testing were asymptomatic," the company said in its statement to the Democrat and Chronicle.

Residents who tested negative were to be transferred to a Hurlbut facility 70 miles away in Seneca County in hopes of distancing them from the contagion. If there were other elements to the plan, they were not disclosed.

Tarah Green, a Hornell resident whose grandmother, Florence Green, died at Hornell Gardens on Saturday, April 11, said last week she filed a complaint about the nursing home with the state health department.

"I do believe that my grandmother contracted the virus through a staff member at the facility. My grandmother had not been out of her private room at the facility since the first week in March," Tarah Green said in a letter to a reporter. "There had been little to no contact from the staff to my family in regards to my grandmother's worsening condition.

"I am disgusted with how this situation has been handled and continues to be handled," she wrote. "I realize we are facing a pandemic right now, but the elderly in these homes are human beings that deserve to be treated with the same respect, compassion and right of life that we all expect."