DHEC: Florence nursing home where 11 died didn’t follow COVID-19 guidance

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A 3-D rendering of the coronavirus (Getty Images).

FLORENCE, S.C. (WBTW) — A Florence nursing home refused to follow COVID-19 regulations from the state last year, according to documents obtained by News13 from the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control.

“DHEC worked with this facility for multiple months on its infection control issues,” a statement DHEC gave News13 reads. “Even with DHEC’s guidance, education, training, and onsite visits, Carriage House of Florence was unable to come into compliance. In the interest of the health and safety of the residents, DHEC took an enforcement action against the facility for its numerous issues in violation of Section 1701 (infection control) of Regulation 61-84, Standards for Licensing Community Residential Care Facilities.”

In February, the South Carolina Board of Health and Environmental Control agreed to fine Carriage House $5,000 for the violation. The business had not been fined by the board in the previous five years, according to documents from the February meeting. Both agencies agreed to the consent order.

Tony Bigler, who owns the facility, responded to a request for comment from News13 and said that the facility is “in compliance with Covid-19 policies and procedures.”

Carriage House also owns locations in Hartsville, Sumter and Taylors, according to information from the South Carolina Secretary of State’s business entities search. 

Health inspectors were forced to leave the Florence facility during an unannounced inspection in Sept 2020 because it was not safe for them to continue, according to documents obtained by News13 from DHEC via a Freedom of Information Act request. 

Residents with COVID-19 were not kept separate from residents who didn’t have the virus, staff were not washing hands after caring for those with COVID-19 and people entering the facility were not being screened.

“Due to the high-risk and lack of infection control protection in the facility, the inspectors were unable to complete the routine inspection and were removed immediately,” documents read.

Staff were not using personal protective equipment, according to DHEC, and said they had 30 reusable gowns, with another 60 on backorder.

“No gowns were observed while in the facility,” an audit reads. “Boxes of gloves were observed at front desk and med carts.”

At the time, there were 32 positive cases in residents, one in staff and 11 residents had died due to the virus, according to the documents. The center is licensed for 80 beds.

By August, 50 residents and staff had tested positive. 

Inspectors saw residents with COVID-19 and those who didn’t have the virus were around each other. Doors to rooms with residents who were diagnosed with the virus were propped open, inspectors said, and face masks were not being worn.

“Residents were observed physically touching shoulders and arms as they walked throughout the hallways and common areas of the facility,” the documents read. “Staff members were not observed promoting the residents to remain at least 6 feet apart.”

Staff were not being screened before they started worked, according to DHEC, there wasn’t staff specifically dedicated to caring for residents with COVID-19, there weren’t signs encouraging preventative actions and told DHEC that “they were not able to consider designating staff because it was difficult to keep suspected or confirmed positive residents isolated to their rooms.”

Under deadlines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, staff were supposed to immediately isolate residents who tested positive. 

“The administrator identified the positive cases and stated it was difficult to keep residents from moving freely throughout the facility and that the ombudsman stated it was an infringement of the residents rights and the facility can not make the residents stay in their rooms,” the documents read.

The facility has been repeatedly fined for bed bug violations, and DHEC is now taking further enforcement action against Carriage House, according to a statement from the health agency. 

“The agency will provide the details of this enforcement action once it is finalized, which should be in the coming weeks,” DHEC told News13. “DHEC takes seriously its responsibility to ensure our state’s long-term care facilities provide safe and quality care to their residents.”

Other documents obtained by News13 detail a September follow-up inspection where investigators found bed bugs on and under mattresses, along with bed linens in at least four rooms. The rooms were immediately sprayed for bugs, linens were washed and heat treated and the rooms were supposed to be monitored daily for any other bugs, according to investigation documents. A recliner with bed bugs on it was thrown out. 

Rooms that had bugs were supposed to be sprayed three times a week for three weeks, or until the bugs were gone. 

The September investigation followed one in August, where bed bugs were found in at least two rooms, and urine was smelled in at least one. 

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