Plan to turn Erie nursing home into COVID-19 recovery center is now on hold.

(Capital-Star photo by Hannah McDonald)

ERIE, Pa. —  The move to turn an Erie-based senior care facility into a COVID-19 recovery unit has been put on hold following criticism from employees, residents, and local officials. 

Jefferson County-based Guardian Elder Care, which operates Twinbrook Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center in suburban Lawrence Park, announced late last week that it was turning the facility into a recovery center.

The announcement, on the heels of reporting by the Capital-Star and other outlets about the facility’s preparedness for the pandemic prompted fresh questions from officials, staff and residents.

By Friday, the plan was off. 

“Since the beginning of the pandemic, preparedness plans were developed for various scenarios, which included these dedicated units or sites,” Guardian Healthcare, told the Capital-Star in an emailed statement on Friday. 

“In the Erie market, Twinbrook had been identified as an ideal site for a COVID-19 recovery unit based on its unique physical plant layout. Based upon the most current assessment of COVID-19 cases in northwest Pennsylvania, we are pausing implementation of Twinbrook for this particular use,” Guardian wrote.

Guardian Elder Care had planned to relocate residents to other Guardian-owned facilities in Erie County after it went through “collaborative conversations with physicians and other experts based on the unique physical plant layout of this site.”

But with other COVID-19 recovery units in the area, local leaders questioned the move.

“We see no demand for Erie County or for Erie County residents,” to establish another unit, Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper said during an April 23 briefing. 

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The halted Twinbrook move, which would have been done as a partnership with UPMC, follows a state lawmaker’s call for the Pennsylvania Department of Health to investigate the Lawrence Park senior care facility earlier this month. 

Since March 18, Erie County has seen 78 cases of COVID-19 and one death. There have been no cases of COVID-19 in staff or residents at Twinbrook, Guardian said Thursday.

“Guardian Healthcare continues to engage with our physicians, physician leaders at local and state healthcare systems, the PA Department of Health and other partners to be prepared for the needs of the community,” Guardian said in an emailed statement last week. “Should a significant increase in cases arise or a ‘second wave’ occur, Guardian is ready to transition this site to a COVID-19 recovery unit if it serves the best interests of the local community.”

This talk of moving raised concerns with Twinbrook employees when it was announced on Wednesday. 

One of the first employees to call attention to the problems at Twinbrook earlier this year was originally notified of the change over the phone by Guardian Elder Care.

The nurse and her coworkers “were stressed most or upset that we’re going to lose our patients that we’ve become close to. Most (employees at Twinbrook) do not plan on staying,” the nurse told the Capital-Star. “They plan on quitting or trying to transfer because [of] their own personal reasons, their children, or their own health, or not trusting that we will have the PPE that we need.” 

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The nurse told the Capital-Star that by her count, less than five employees planned to stay at Twinbrook if it is converted to a COVID-19 recovery unit. 

According to the nurse, the senior care facility had no discussion, staff meetings, “no input of anything” between staff at administration when making the decision to move residents away from Twinbrook to another Guardian-owned facility to make space for COVID-19 patients. 

The Twinbrook employee continued: “My heart breaks for them … staff is crying and, you know, I mean, we care about these people. They become our family. And they don’t have anyone outside anymore,” since the facility has been on a COVID-19 lockdown for over a month. 

Concerns about Twinbrook aren’t new.

In January, Twinbrook failed to comply with emergency planning criteria set forth by the department. The 120-bed facility fell under scrutiny of Rep. Pat Harkins, D-Erie, in late February, when reports rose from employees that management was allegedly busting their union efforts while the facility had already been put into COVID-19 lockdown. 

Past and current problems aside, residents at Twinbrook “were very relieved,” when the move was put on hold, the nurse told the Capital-Star, Monday. 

“I mean, some even broke down in tears,” the nurse said. 

The nurse and her residents found out about Guardian’s change of plans on April 24. 

“When I was at work, the HR lady called me on the phone to tell me … And also, they had various people from activities and the office go around explaining to the residents that they would be staying and you know, telling the staff that too,” the nurse told the Capital-Star. 

“But, they did not say it was off the table,” the nurse continued. “So, you know, I just figure it’s just a matter of time.”

Correspondent Hannah McDonald covers Erie and northwestern Pennsylvania for the Capital-Star