One Yorker's COVID death: 'Nothing but praise' for health care workers who tried to help mother

Harper Ho
York Dispatch

Donna Bortner got an early-morning call in September from ManorCare Health Services-Kingston Court in Springettsbury Township. A nurse practitioner told Bortner that her 89-year-old mother, who was suffering from dementia, had fainted during breakfast. 

This had happened before to her mother, Janet Seitz, so Bortner wasn't overly alarmed, but she drove to the nursing home anyway to see Seitz through her bedroom window —a ritual she had been doing since the onslaught of a pandemic that has claimed more than 265,000 American lives. 

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Donna Bortner, 68, left, of Springettsbury Township, visits her mother Janet Seitz, 89, at ManorCare Health Services-Kingston Court, Thursday, April 3, 2020. Bortner regularly visits her mother who has lived at the home since March 2019 following an illness. Seitz also suffers from dementia. "She’s just so easy to please because she’s just so grateful that we come and see her," said Bortner. Dawn J. Sagert photo

But it would be the mother and daughter's last such visit together, because Seitz died within days from COVID-19 complications.

Pennsylvania's long-term care facilities are bearing the brunt of coronavirus deaths, a crisis repeating across the country. As of Saturday, 6,459 of the state's 10,275 deaths have been associated with nursing or personal care facilities, according to the state Health Department.

Seitz is among 114 people who have died from the virus in such facilities in York County, where the virus death toll was 241 as of Saturday. The numbers had been declining after spiking in April but have been on the rise this fall.

Bortner said ManorCare tried hard to keep its residents and employees healthy, but “it’s just the situation in itself.” The facility has had 83 positive cases among residents, seven of whom have died, as of Nov. 11, according to the state’s data. 

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"They’d have a pop-up of case and they contain it. Then all of a sudden, there were several asymptomatic employees," Bortner said. "You just couldn’t tell. People would go out and get around somebody that had no symptoms, and they’d come in for work, and the testing just couldn’t keep up with it.”

Zach Shamberg, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Health Care Association, an organization that advocates for a variety of long-term care and senior service providers, pointed out that ineffective testing has been one of the problems these facilities faced from the get-go.

"What we're seeing now, unfortunately, is we've come full circle and the same battles that we were fighting back in mid-March — whether it's for (personal protective equipment), whether it's for testing or staffing — we're fighting those battles again," he said. "At the end of the day, I think it's about priority." 

Shamberg said even though nursing homes have been the epicenter of the pandemic, they continue to suffer most because they don't get the same resources as hospitals and health care providers.

"It's unfortunate but it's no surprise that nearly 70% of all COVID-19-related deaths in Pennsylvania have occurred in long-term care, and that's similar in other states," he said. "We know the virus is highly contagious and it spreads easily in a contained area, and that's in nursing homes. ... As far as I'm concerned, long-term care workers and residents should be getting the priority when it comes to support and relief." 

Donna Bortner, 68, left, of Springettsbury Township, visits her mother Janet Seitz for her 89th birthday at ManorCare Health Services-Kingston Court, in February. Submitted photo

Shamberg said mitigating infection at a five-star or a one-star facility doesn’t make a difference; rather, the research from top universities shows that greater spread in the community means more risk for nursing homes. 

“Greater spread in the community does equal greater spread in long-term care. It has a direct correlation in what you do matters,” he said. “We've got to keep the community spread in Pennsylvania under control.” 

Bortner said ManorCare told her Seitz caught the virus from asymptomatic employees. Her mother died the morning of Sept. 16.

“We got to say our goodbyes the day after. I didn’t think we would be able to view her because of this (COVID-19),” she said. “She was dressed up pretty and laid out on a bed for us, and just the immediate family went to view her. I’m so glad my sister got to see her because it broke her heart." 

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Bortner said she leaned on family and friends to get through those "dark" months.

“There’s too many people going through a lot worse than what we've gone through, and my heart goes out to them," she said. "It’s a rough time for everybody. People that choose to ignore it (the virus), I can’t do anything for them. But the doctors and nurses that work day in and day out ... I have nothing but praise for them and the people that tried to help my mom."