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Experts worry about safety of elderly after governor's order limiting nursing home neglect lawsuits

Families aren't able to visit the most neglect and COVID-19 vulnerable, it's hard to know what's happening behind closed doors to the elderly.

ATLANTA — As COVID-19 testing becomes more available in Georgia, infections continue to rise in long-term care facilities.

Georgia officials have been applauded for their transparency by releasing case numbers for each facility, but some advocates believe an executive order signed by the governor could make it nearly impossible for families to hold facilities accountable for neglect.

As of Wednesday, at least 185 nursing homes had active cases; 3,316 residents and staff have tested positive. The virus has killed 336 residents.

One patient currently infected is Hattie Lester, a 57-year-old Atlanta woman who lives at the Sadie Mays Rehabilitation Center.

Her daughter, Natasha Miller, says she’s the social butterfly of the facility. “She talks to everybody. So, everybody knows Ms. Lester,” said Miller, who has not seen her mother in person in more than a month and a half.

RELATED: State, families claim delays in COVID-19 numbers from Georgia's nursing homes: 'It's scary'

Credit: WXIA

Sadie Mays quarantined residents to their rooms in mid-March in response to the pandemic, but Miller says her mother told her she was still allowed to walk the halls.

A short-time later, Ms. Lester developed a cough. Then, there were rumors an employee contracted the coronavirus. “And I said, ‘What?! I said nobody has called me,’” explained Miller.

About a week later, Miller did get a call. It was news she was dreading, left on a 15 second voicemail.

“Calling to inform you that Ms. Lester has been moved to area three because she tested positive for the COVID-19 virus. If you can give us a call back, thank you,” said a facility employee on the voicemail.

At least 30 other residents tested positive. “[My mom] panicked, she freaked out, she was crying uncontrollably,” said Miller.

Ms. Lester suffers from diabetes, liver problems and mental illness. These are some of the pre-existing conditions that make COVID-19 patients more susceptible to the virus.

Sadie Mays is managed by Pruitt Health. It’s the largest nursing home provider in Georgia. At least 17 of the 101 facilities it owns or manages have active COVID-19 cases.

“You know, our heart goes out to anyone suffering from this terrible virus,” said Neil Pruitt, the company’s CEO.

RELATED: Islands of protection in a sea of COVID-19: Dozens of senior living facilities in Georgia reporting zero cases

Credit: WXIA
Budd Terrace nursing home coronavirus signs

Pruitt has developed an online portal for the public to identify the number of positive COVID patients, pending tests, negative tests and those who have recovered - at each facility. While it provides a more detailed look at resident cases than the state shares, it does not include the number of staff who have tested positive. The Georgia Department of Community Health includes that figure in its reports.

Pruitt says he wanted to be transparent with families who have loved ones living at his facilities. “So, when you see the numbers, appear on our website, to use that’s a good thing. It gives us the tools we need to fight this virus,” said Pruitt.

Brian Lee is executive director of Families for Better Care, an advocacy organization. He praises Pruitt’s decision to release its COVID-19 case numbers.

“I give a double thumbs up to Pruitt for what they are accomplishing,” said Lee. “I think the people should follow their lead. I think all providers should follow their lead. I mean, really, you should have nothing to hide.”

Pruitt has ordered more than 4,000 antibody tests that it hopes will help the company identify who has already had the virus.

While Lee believes Pruitt’s move is a step in the right direction, he’s still worried about residents’ safety.

Elderly neglect worries

Georgia has suspended annual nursing home inspections, family visitations and most facilities are struggling with severe staffing shortages. “All of that combined, it’s kind of a recipe for disaster in these places right now,” said Lee.

If families do suspect neglect, it could be difficult to seek damages. About two weeks ago, Georgia’s governor signed an executive order limiting the type of lawsuits that can be filed against nursing homes.

►READ | Governor Kemp's full executive order

Trial attorneys and advocates believe it makes owners immune to accountability. “I couldn’t believe it that they would seize on an opportunity during the middle of this crisis to make that kind of petition for their own self-preservation,” said Lee.

Pruitt would not disclose whether he personally asked the governor to do so, but he believes it’s needed during the pandemic.

Georgia nursing homes are still admitting patients during the pandemic.

The CDC has released a complete list of guidelines for nursing homes to follow to help stop the spread of COVID-19. 

READ | CDC guidelines for nursing homes to stop the spread of COVID-19

11Alive is focusing our news coverage on the facts and not the fear around the virus.  We want to keep you informed about the latest developments while ensuring that we deliver confirmed, factual information. 

We will track the most important coronavirus elements relating to Georgia on this page. Refresh often for new information. 

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