CHARLESTON, W.Va. – They can't get taxis or child care. Two were refused service at a gas station. Another's trip to a pharmacy prompted a concerned call.
Staffers at a nursing home dubbed “ ground zero ” for West Virginia's growing coronavirus caseload have been treated as pariahs for their close proximity to the infection cluster, officials said Friday.
“It's heartbreaking for them," Carl Shrader, medical director for the Sundale nursing home, told The Associated Press in an interview. “And they're already in a fragile place from what they're being asked to do.”
Twenty-one residents and eight staffers at the Morgantown nursing home have tested positive for the virus since the first case was discovered Sunday. Monongalia County, where the facility is located, has the most cases in a state that reported at least 96 positive cases as of Friday night.
As a skeleton crew working 16-hour shifts fights to contain the virus, care for elderly residents and field phone calls from worried relatives unable to visit, fear in the community is making their lives, and the lives of family members, more difficult.
One staffer was told to get back when she tried to use a card to pay for items at a gas station. A babysitter told another employee, “No, I don't want your child in my home" because of virus concerns. When a third wearing a Sundale shirt entered a pharmacy, the store called the nursing home wanting to know how many other staffers had been there, Shrader said.
The families of Sundale staffers have become targets, too, with some bosses telling them to stay home because a spouse or relative works at the nursing home, according to Shrader. One employee's husband was even pelted with Clorox wipes at his workplace.
“When you're sitting across the table from them and you hear the stories and how it's impacted their families and humiliated them, it's heartbreaking,” he said.
Shrader said the actions marred an otherwise generous outpouring of support from people who had pizza and Chick-fil-A delivered, and donated cleaning supplies, soda, water and snacks. The nursing home has also received safety gear and sterile gowns.
“It's difficult enough to be tasked with these kinds of obligations, and it's critically important that the moments they're outside of the facility that they still feel that they're part of their communities,” he said.
Adding to the already tense situation, Sundale erroneously reported to health officials that a 76-year-old resident who was hospitalized with coronavirus had died, which would have been the state's first virus fatality. The announcement was quickly retracted Friday. Shrader told the AP that the nursing home was alerted to the death in error when someone at the hospital who had the same last name as one of their residents died.
Gov. Jim Justice, a Republican, has repeatedly warned that West Virginia, with its high rate of the elderly and people with existing health problems, is particularly at risk of virus deaths. A recent Kaiser Family Foundation study found that West Virginia has the nation’s highest percentage of adults at risk of developing serious illnesses from the virus.
“It is the horror story that we absolutely didn't want to have happen, at least from a nursing home standpoint because that's a place, you know, that our elderly are at for sure," Justice said of the Sundale cases Thursday.
Testing remains limited, meaning most people now spreading the highly contagious virus may not know they have been infected, and state health officials have admitted their count lags behind the actual total as results pour in from counties across the state.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks, and the overwhelming majority of people recover. But severe cases can need respirators to survive, and with infections spreading exponentially, hospitals across the country are either bracing for a coming wave of patients, or already struggling to keep up.
Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.