Montgomery County reports first COVID-19 deaths since April

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Montgomery County reported its first coronavirus-related deaths since early April, announcing three deaths that occurred over the past week connected to one area nursing home.

County officials acknowledged the three deaths Wednesday afternoon during a weekly briefing conducted via Facebook Live. They are the first deaths reported by the county since retired Amsterdam firefighter Dave Swart died in early April, bringing the county’s death toll due to the COVID-19 pandemic to four.

County Executive Matt Ossenfort, Public Health Director Sara Boerenko and Sheriff Jeffrey Smith did not disclose during the briefing the name of the nursing home connected to the deaths, nor the names or any personal information regarding the deceased. 

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When asked later Wednesday for further comment, Ossenfort declined to name the facility “until the families have had the opportunity to arrange for services in order to honor loved ones.”

The three deaths are the first related to the virus in a county nursing home since the beginning of the pandemic.

“These three deaths have hit me pretty hard, because we worked really hard with this facility to ensure that the residents were getting the hospitalization and care that they needed,” Boerenko said. “Unfortunately, we know with this virus [that] someone can be doing very well, and it took a turn. To have this many fatalities — and some people may say, ‘Well, it’s only three’ — but to have three in such a short amount of time has really impacted us in our community.”

“We knew that eventually this would happen,” she added. “The one thing I am thankful for is it took 165 days, roughly [since the county’s first confirmed positive COVID-19 test], to have deaths in our nursing homes, because it means what we have been doing worked.”

In addition to the three deaths connected to one nursing home, Boerenko said there were also confirmed cases among employees at a second nursing home in the county.

“We are working very diligently, very closely with those two facilities,” she said.

Ossenfort acknowledged the difficulty of dealing with clusters of infection within nursing homes.

“This is something that’s going to have to be actively managed for weeks now,” he said. “Once it’s in, then we know how contagious and how easily spread this virus is. We can expect there’s likely going to be more issues, but hopefully with the work of everyone, we can stay on top of it.”

Despite the sobering news he delivered Wednesday, Ossenfort said he’s been heartened — both currently and throughout the pandemic — about the work local nursing homes and adult care facilities have done to keep the virus in check.

“Everything we can tell, from our look into what’s happening, is they’re really trying their best,” Ossenfort said. “There’s a good effort there, nobody’s trying to shirk their responsibilities, and I’d be the first to say that here publicly if I did hear that. That’s the one thing that makes me feel a little bit better about this.”

The county has reported 190 positive COVID-19 cases since March. The sources of those cases have come in waves, Boerenko said, starting with community spread, then to cases traced to travel outside the state or region.

Nursing homes were “always our biggest fear,” Boerenko said, given the problems at similar facilities across the state.

“For us, it’s sort of like that punch at the gut,” Boerenko said, “because this was our biggest fear and now we’re there. It’s not if, it’s when.”

Boerenko said that while all three cases that resulted in the deaths were “very different,” the common thread was that all three patients were healthy and doing well before testing positive for COVID-19.

“Slowly, other underlying health indications prevented them from making a recovery,” she said. “They were respiratory related, and we know that COVID is a respiratory illness. We know it wasn’t pneumonia or tuberculosis. It’s awful. No matter how they died, it’s terrible.” 

This news, Ossenfort said, should go a long way toward snapping Montgomery County residents out of any “false sense of confidence or comfort” regarding the county’s elderly population.

“I think we’re the oldest, per capita, county in the state, so that’s always been a concern from the beginning,” he said. “It’s a reminder today that this is why we’re still in Phase 4 [of reopening], why we’re not having large gatherings, why you’re not seeing spectators and things of that nature. We’re going to keep our heads down and keep trying to do what we can to help in this situation.

“If we do some of these basic things, we can keep these numbers low and get through it. We’ve got some time left.”

Reach Adam Shinder at [email protected] or @Adam_Shinder on Twitter.

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