Two residents of Canterbury Rehabilitation & Healthcare Center in Henrico County are the Richmond area’s first COVID-19 fatalities, bringing the state’s death toll to nine.
The Richmond and Henrico County Health Districts on Tuesday described the residents as “elderly” and said they were among several patients at the center receiving treatment for the coronavirus at a Richmond-area hospital.
The deaths come amid an outbreak at the center that local officials have struggled ‘to measure and contain. A similar facility in Washington state experienced one of the first outbreaks of the disease in the United States earlier this month. More than three dozen patients at the facility outside Seattle have died.
Dr. James Wright, Canterbury’s medical director, has raised concerns about staffing shortages and delays in testing over the past week. Canterbury Rehabilitation & Healthcare Center, near Lauderdale Drive and John Rolfe Parkway in western Henrico, is not to be confused with the Westminster Canterbury Richmond retirement community in Henrico near Richmond’s North Side.
Staff at the center declined to answer questions in person Tuesday. A written statement attributed to Wright said 10 patients have tested positive for the virus.
Four remain in the hospital while the other four are being treated at the center in an isolated unit. Three of the center’s health care workers have also tested positive.
After a case is confirmed, the health department regards anyone else in the facility displaying symptoms a presumed positive, and 20 of the facility’s 160 residents had fevers or coughs, Wright said in an interview Monday.
Answering through a media liaison Tuesday, Wright did not say how many tests have been administered or how many people are awaiting results.
“Fortunately we have been able to access both supplies and testing facilities and expect to have a much clearer picture of COVID-19 cases soon,” he said. “We would ask that we be allowed to evaluate those results before we make any conjectures regarding the total number of cases.”
On Monday, Wright said he has been short-staffed because several of the nurses and aides work at other long-term care facilities in the area and have been instructed by the other facilities not to return to Canterbury because of the outbreak.
Wright said the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not impose these restrictions and the situation calls for all hands on deck.
He said he has several staff members who have been working with very few breaks, returning to work after only six-hour breaks.
“I understand the caution but at this point in a pandemic we really need to adhere to the guidelines because everyone’s going to see a case and if they keep these restrictions in place you’ll be left without anyone to work,” Wright said.
Wright and several other long-term care directors raised concerns last week with the delays in testing nursing home residents, a measure the Virginia Department of Health adjusted over the weekend.
“I’m happy with the response of the VDH to our request for speedier testing and it wasn’t the delay of testing that led to our COVID-19 related deaths,” Wright said in a text message Tuesday night.
In its news release, the county health district said it began working with the facility more than a week ago to implement measures such as a dedicated ward for symptomatic residents.
“The health department is continuing to collaborate with the facility to reduce risk of transmission, conduct contact investigation and to implement control measures,” the news release says.
Henrico County Manager John Vithoulkas said the center had not responded to the county’s offer earlier on Tuesday morning to set up an incident management team to help the facility cope with the deteriorating situation.
He said the county offered to help coordinate additional nursing staff and cleaning the facility, as well as other types of logistical support.
“The facility is one that needs help and needs help soon,” he said. “I think their internal resources are going to be exhausted.”
The nursing home had been working directly with local health officials, but Vithoulkas said the county’s emergency management team got involved after learning on Tuesday morning that one resident had died overnight.
“This morning, we moved into a different mode,” he said, noting that he had personally tried to call the home’s administrator twice without success.
Wright did not respond to questions about the county manager’s comments. Danny Avula, the executive director of the Richmond and Henrico County Health Districts, said he tried to facilitate communications between Canterbury and the county Tuesday.
“The sense I got is that they aren’t ready. I don’t think they’re rebuffing the county,” he said. “My team has been on site with them. They’ve been more than accommodating, working alongside with us.”
The Virginia Department of Health has confirmed 42 COVID-19 cases in the Richmond region, including 14 in Henrico. The VDH reported Tuesday that there are 290 cases statewide, an increase from 254 on Monday.
While 4 in 5 people recover from the disease without needing special treatment, according to the World Health Organization, older people and people with underlying medical problems — high blood pressure or diabetes, for example — are more likely to develop serious illness.
The announcement Tuesday of the Canterbury deaths comes as Virginia has ratcheted up its response to the virus, closing schools for the rest of the academic year and closing nonessential businesses.
In a statement on behalf of Gov. Ralph Northam, spokeswoman Alena Yarmosky said he is “deeply saddened” about the news.
“Our state and local health departments are working closely with this facility to provide ongoing support, protect the safety of residents and staff, and stop the spread of this virus,” she said.