A care home owner who lost more than 20 residents to Covid-19 has relived the ordeal as new data reveals the tragic death toll suffered by Welsh care homes.
Brian Rosenberg, who owns Tregwilym Lodge Nursing and Residential Home in Rogerstone, Newport, said lessons had to be learned from the catastrophe to improve the handling of any future crisis.
In April 2020 – at the height of the health emergency – undertakers were unable to keep up with demand as a result of spiralling deaths at his home and in the community, many of which were unconfirmed due to the lack of testing.
Mr Rosenberg said the virus spread like wildfire at the 74-bed home, leaving staff powerless to protect residents, despite their relentless efforts.
He was speaking as Care Inspectorate Wales (CIW) – the independent regulator of social care and childcare in Wales – released new statistics showing Covid-19-related deaths in individual care homes in Wales.
“We were devastated. For 98 per cent of the people who come to Tregwilym, it’s the last place they will ever know.
“They are frail and some might have advanced dementia and they become almost like one big family.
“If you lose one member of your family after another, and watch them go in this way in quick succession and continue to work despite the circumstances, it’s heartbreaking.
“In 2021, we are all much wiser and we have the benefit of vaccinations. But at that time, because of the way the virus was being transmitted and handled – and the lack of testing – transmission was inevitable.
“What was totally shocking for us was the rapidity of how it went through the home. Those who worked through it were literally on their knees. They were broken.”
Care Forum Wales, which represents more than 450 care homes, nursing homes and other health and social care providers, said the release of the figures was difficult for all concerned and said it was vitally important the information was handled with sensitivity and the greatest of respect.
Chief executive Mary Wimbury said: “As the voice of the care sector in Wales, it is important to remind people of the deadly, indiscriminate nature of this virus.
“As Care Inspectorate Wales have made clear, the number of death notifications involving Covid-19 has no bearing on the quality of care delivered and was instead down to a whole range of factors including rates of community transmission, age, ethnicity and the fragile and vulnerable health of those living in our care homes.
“Bitter experience showed that once the virus had a foothold, it was incredibly difficult to control. It’s only vaccination that has changed that.
“The valiant efforts of staff and carers deserve the highest praise and gratitude – these people risked their lives in frontline care roles to protect those people in their care and tragically some paid the ultimate price. Even now, we cannot underestimate the impact constant vigilance against Covid-19 has had on staff.”
Mr Rosenberg, who has owned Tregwilym since 1985, said it was important the Welsh Government learned lessons from the crisis but that it was unhelpful to be drawn into a “blame game”.
“I’m keen on lessons being learnt,” he said.
“If you’re looking for people to point the finger at, then the inquiry will become very defensive. Lots of people will be trying to protect their own position. We need an open and honest discussion on what went wrong and what are the lessons learnt.
“You have to bear in mind in early 2020, there were no vaccinations, there was a very poor testing regime for people going in and out of hospital and in particular discharges so that if they were asymptomatic, they were not being tested. In my view, that was one of the biggest problems.
“It undoubtedly cost lives and was a big mistake but it was the prevailing approach at that time, it was flawed and it was wrong. We can all say that in hindsight.
“When you have such a virus so transmissible you err on the side of caution, you come back to the point we are looking after the most vulnerable and fail people in our society. Therefore you should be ultra-cautious not cavalier.
“Today the thinking is totally different – they test, test, test, test, test. Why couldn’t we have done it then? The resources were the same then as they are today and the testing regime was available.
“The upshot was that over a very short period we lost just over 20 people and it went through the home like wildfire. So much so, that the undertakers could not even keep pace with us because not only where there deaths in our home, there were a lot of deaths in the community. It was something like you would expect to see in a third world country.”
Ms Wimbury said Care Forum Wales had been quick of the mark in calling for all these issues – including the dire shortage of PPE – to be addressed as a matter of urgency.
“Care Forum Wales fought for action and support and was instrumental in securing care homes a financial lifeline to absorb mounting costs,” she said.
“Much more is now known about the risk of asymptomatic spread of the virus and the risk of airborne infection and it is important we continue to learn from experience.
“Every single death was a tragedy for the loved ones of those who passed away. It was and remains the greatest crisis ever faced by the social care sector in Wales. The publication of these figures underlines the terrible toll we have all suffered.”
Mr Rosenberg said the only silver lining had been the successful roll-out of the vaccination programme, which continues to save lives.
“I have another home – not in Wales – and 10 residents have the illness. All of them have been double jabbed and are going around looking like nothing has happened,” he said.
“There’s a big success story here – the vaccination programme has really worked. Give the Welsh Government their dues. They were quick. They were focused. I’m all for criticising when you need to but give credit where it is due.”
Mr Rosenberg, whose home was at one stage losing £15,000 a week through spiralling costs in the pandemic, said care homes would now face fresh challenges in March next year when the Government’s hardship fund comes to an end, threatening the closure of many more homes.
“The whole sector is massively underfunded. It has got worse as a result of Covid and patently needs more investment,” he said.
“I know there are a number of care homes on the brink of financial collapse. The hardship fund has helped – it has helped everybody. But it’s now tapering off and will finish next March and unless there’s a review of funding, homes will close.”