Coronavirus on Long Island: 6 Die in Outbreak at Retirement Community

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By John Leland, New York Times, March 26 2020

Facilities for older adults are especially vulnerable to infection. At St. Joseph’s Senior Home in Woodbridge, N.J., at least 24 residents tested positive for the virus.
Facilities for older adults are especially vulnerable to infection. At St. Joseph’s Senior Home in Woodbridge, N.J., at least 24 residents tested positive for the virus. Seth Wenig/Associated Press

The first sign appeared two weeks ago, when an employee tested positive for coronavirus. By Wednesday, Peconic Landing, an upscale elder community on the North Fork of Long Island, announced its sixth death from the virus, sparking fears of an even bigger outbreak among a vulnerable, confined population.

What was a peaceful waterfront resort by the shores of Long Island Sound has become a scene of emergency crews and spreading anxiety. Employees worked double shifts or filled in for missing workers; when one threw out her mask to go on break, her supervisor reprimanded her for not reusing it.

Visitors trying to check in with parents were turned away at the gates, and families were advised that removing their relatives was even riskier than keeping them there.

“I’m 90 years old, I’d like to die naturally,” one resident told her son. “But I don’t want to die for this.”

The cases are the latest to hit a facility for older adults, who are at especially high risk of serious illness or death from the virus. Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., has seen the worst concentration of cases, with at least 35 deaths and about two-thirds of the residents testing positive for the virus.

At St. Joseph’s Senior Nursing Home in Woodbridge, N.J., at least 24 residents have tested positive. On Wednesday, all 94 patients were evacuated as the facility shut down.

Nursing homes and other group residences for older adults are particularly susceptible to the pandemic, because residents are in close contact with one another and with the workers, and because many residents already have other health problems and weakened immune systems.

“We can’t let Kirkland be the model for what happens,” said Tony Spiridakis, whose mother, Eugenia, 90, lives in an apartment at Peconic Landing and has remained healthy, if isolated. “I’m just terrified that they’re sitting ducks,” he said.

Because the facility is on lockdown, for her birthday he put on a surgical mask and gloves and placed a sign on the lawn in front of her apartment.

The deaths at Peconic Landing included three men and three women, ages 88 to 97. The facility has not released the names of those who died. Family members were not permitted to be with some of the elders as they died, because of hospital restrictions to curb the spread of the virus.

Suffolk County, which includes some of the East Coast’s wealthiest beach communities, had 2,260 confirmed cases of Covid-19, and 20 deaths, as of Wednesday — at least one death in each of the last 7 days. “We’re seeing those numbers on a daily basis continue to rise,” Steve Bellone, the Democratic county executive, said. As elsewhere, there was a shortage of face masks, medical gowns, gloves and hand sanitizer.Sign up to receive our daily Coronavirus Briefing, an informed guide with the latest developments and expert advice.Sign Up

Mr. Bellone said he has not been tested because of a shortage of tests.

Peconic Landing, which has 377 residents, or members, was seeking donations of protective gear for workers and residents, but a representative said that because of these donations, lack of equipment had not “impacted care” for any residents. Shortages of the essential protective equipment have been rampant at health facilities around the country, increasing risks of spread.

At a briefing for reporters, Robert J. Syron, president of Peconic Landing, was asked whether all residents and workers were being tested for the virus.

We don’t have the ability,” he said, according to the local news site Patch. “We wish we could. There just aren’t enough tests. I have no control over it. If I could write a check to have every person tested, I would have written it.”

Peconic Landing has a five-star rating from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. The facility, where initial costs start at $247,000, plus monthly fees, occupies 144 acres by Long Island Sound, and ranges from independent-living cottages to skilled nursing and a memory care unit for people with dementia.

Once it hit Long Island, we knew it would be here,” Mr. Syron told The Suffolk Times. “So we prepared well in advance. But we did not expect it would hit us like it did.”

After the first diagnosis on March 10, the facility management identified people who had worked near the sick employee and sent them home. A day later it encouraged visitors to stay away.

But the virus was already starting to spread. People who are infected with Covid-19 can transmit it even before they develop symptoms or know they have the disease. Mr. Bellone said it was likely that the virus was present in the area long before testing began, “some weeks, at least.”

In a statement, he added, “We have seen evidence that there are likely hundreds, if not thousands, of residents who have already contracted the virus, self-resolved and are back to full health without even knowing it.” During that time, though, they could have passed the disease to others.

On March 12, two more employees tested positive. By March 17, the virus had spread to the residents, though all were described as being in stable condition. The next day came the first death, a 96-year-old woman in the skilled nursing unit, then three more in the following three days, bringing the total to four, with 13 more testing positive.

The fifth death was a retired Latin teacher named Robert Greenberger, 88, whose son, Jeff, named him in an obituary submitted to The Suffolk Times, writing that he and his wife had last visited about a month ago, and that both were healthy. “We are staying tucked at home, as we hope all of you are able to do, too!” they wrote. The sixth death, an 88-year-old man, came on Tuesday, the 24th.

At least 12 residents and 13 employees are confirmed to have the virus.

The deaths have shaken the cozy town of Greenport, a mixed community that includes high-end summer visitors and blue collar locals, said Dave Kapell, a former mayor of the town. Stores, other than the IGA supermarket, are largely closed, and the streets, always slow in March, are mostly empty.

“Downtown is a ghost town,” Mr. Kapell said. “It’s surreal. It’s very somber. And there’s not much an average person like me can do, because of the restraint on movement. You can’t volunteer. I feel helpless.”

He fretted that the virus would not be contained at Peconic Landing. “There’s a general fear that this thing is already loose in the community,” he said.

Many locals are especially concerned with what happens next, with summer crowds coming, said David Berson, who operates an electric sightseeing boat. The virus was someplace before it got to the employee and the senior community.

“Everyone’s saying, once we lock down, how do we unlock?” Mr. Berson said. “How do we know it’s safe, without testing?”Correction: March 26, 2020

An earlier version of this article misidentified the location of Peconic Landing. It is on the North Fork of Long Island, not the North Shore.

John Leland, a Metro reporter, joined The Times in 2000. His most recent book is “Happiness Is a Choice You Make: Lessons From a Year Among the Oldest Old,” based on a Times series. @johnlelandA version of this article appears in print on March 27, 2020, Section A, Page 15 of the New York edition with the headline: 6 Die at a Retirement Community As Illness Spreads on Long Island. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe