Nursing home deaths point to wider medical staff shortages

2 residents dead, 2 others in critical condition at understaffed facility in Thomasville

Pine Ridge nursing home in Thomasville on Monday, Jan. 24, 2022. The facility is under scrutiny after resident care issues became public. PJ WARD-BROWN/NORTH STATE JOURNAL

RALEIGH — Over a snowy weekend in Thomasville, a town in the Piedmont Triad, 98 residents at the Pine Ridge Health and Rehabilitation nursing facility were cared for by only three staff. Two of the patients didn’t survive the weekend. Two others were in critical condition and had to be transported to an area hospital, according to local police. While the weather was a major factor, the tragedy also points to a critical shortage of health care staff at nursing facilities, hospitals and other medical providers in North Carolina, often leaving those most vulnerable with no assistance. 

After Thomasville police, fire and EMS arrived at 8 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 16, they did a thorough check of each resident, which took until 7:30 a.m. the next morning, according to the Associated Press. The wellness check was initiated by emergency calls from residents themselves, who said they hadn’t been checked on and had not been able to reach staff by phone.  

“NCDHHS’ Division of Health Service Regulation staff worked with county officials and local and state Emergency Management officials to help coordinate a response to the situation at Pine Ridge on Sunday and Monday, Jan. 16-17, 2022,” Kelly Haight Connor, communications manager for the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services, told NSJ on Jan. 24. “DHSR staff have been on-site to conduct an investigation of the facility’s compliance with the applicable requirements. We cannot comment on on-going investigations.” 

Sen. Steve Jarvis, a Republican who represents Thomasville in the state Senate, told NSJ on Jan. 24 that he was alerted immediately when it took place, saying, “It was a truly tragic situation.”  

Jarvis is on the Senate Health Appropriations Committee and the Joint Health Oversight Committee, and said, “I feel certain this will be a large topic of discussion,” the next time the committees meet.  

“It’s something we’re very interested in, and we’re going to get to the bottom of it and get it taken care of. This is not a light matter and we don’t want to take it lightly,” Jarvis added.  

He said that while there were “numerous potential issues,” he is waiting until the report from the state investigators comes out to make further judgments. 

In the Thomasville Police Department’s statement, Capt. Brad Saintsing said, “Obviously, the weather and road conditions contributed to the inadequate staffing issues with this facility.” 

Beyond the impact of the weather, the Thomasville shortage is evidence of the larger worker shortages being seen across the country, especially among health care workers.  

“I think hospitals, and health care workers in general, are pressed to the limit, and yes, I believe there would be a shortage across the state,” Jarvis said. “So, I’d have to say, if it happened here [in Thomasville], it could very possibly be happening in other places as well. We definitely need to investigate.” 

Later the same week, on Jan. 21, NCDHHS released a statement announcing that they had officially asked for federal help due to health care staffing shortages in the Charlotte region, blaming the highly contagious, but less deadly, Omicron variant of COVID-19. 

“We continue to monitor hospital capacity and staffing needs and have requested resources, including additional nurses from FEMA,” Gov. Roy Cooper said in the statement. “We appreciate previous federal support and will keep working to make sure that people get the medical care they need.” 

The statement said they are working with Atrium Health, which is a major health provider in the Charlotte area, to make the request to FEMA. The statement noted that Atrium reports it has already “employed numerous strategies to stretch its capacity, including redeploying staff from urgent care and outpatient centers; limiting non-urgent procedures; closing specialty centers; and using additional state-provided flexibilities.” 

The NCDHHS press release also said that FEMA provided North Carolina with 25 ambulances earlier in January, which are being used in 11 counties. 

An October 2021 report by the Associated Press on the increasing staffing shortages at nursing facilities nationwide quoted Tamika Dalton, who saw her 74-year-old mother suffer then pass away at an understaffed facility in Greensboro, Blumenthal Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. 

Dalton said the facility had sufficient staffing when her mother became a resident in 2019, but once COVID-19 kept visitors from going inside, Dalton peered through her mother’s window, seeing fewer and fewer aides pass by and her mother sometimes sitting for hours in a soiled diaper. Her hair was often matted and her toenails grew long. A bedsore the size of a fist festered on her backside. Sometimes, unable to dial a phone herself and with no aides in sight, she would holler to a passing custodian for help. 

“She would call out for help and no one would come,” Dalton said. “There was no one around.” 

As conditions continued to deteriorate, Theresa Dalton, a retired minister, contracted COVID-19 and died Feb. 12. By June, the facility’s staffing was down 15% from the start of 2020, and 25% from the start of 2019. 

The Division of Health Service Regulation, which is housed under the NCDHHS, lists 423 nursing care facilities as registered in the state. Connor told NSJ that Pine Ridge is one of these licensed facilities and said the facility is operated by Principle LTC.  

The Associated Press contributed to this report.