At least three nursing homes in Terrebonne Parish have been fully repaired, inspected and are ready to reopen.
But a full month after Hurricane Ida forced residents to evacuate to facilities hours away, there’s still a debate among parish leaders, state health officials and nursing home operators over when it’s safe to bring back hundreds of displaced residents.
Patients and their families say they are desperate to return.
“She is so sad. We're all sad, and I feel sick, literally,” said Susan Clement, whose 84-year-old mother, Carmen, normally lives at the Oaks of Houma but has been staying at a nursing home in Alexandria since the storm. “She knows no one over there. The nurses don't know her, and she just needs to get back home. This is her home.”
Jody DePriest is the administrator for four nursing homes in southeast Louisiana, including the Oaks and Heritage Manor, another Terrebonne Parish facility. He said nearly 200 patients have been displaced from the two Houma locations, and more than 300 staff members are waiting to return to work.
“We feel like we can do a good job at facilities that are structurally sound,” DePriest said. “We have all the communication tools and everything that we had pre-storm to go back to operating the way that we did before.”
DePriest sent an email to Louisiana Department of Health and Terrebonne Parish officials on Sept. 20, asking for a date to reopen.
“I plead with anyone that will listen that we can support our residents and can handle many medical situations with our medical directors, nurse practitioners, registered nurses, nursing assistants, etc.,” DePriest wrote. “Just because our residents live in a skilled nursing facility should not mean they (should) not be afforded the same rights and privileges to return home as any other elderly citizen in the parish….”
But Parish President Gordon Dove is pushing back and wants the Louisiana Department of Health to make the decision.
“We want them back in Terrebonne Parish. We want them near their loved ones,” Dove said. “(But) we have to make sure that Terrebonne can take them, medically.”
Dove says it’s too risky for elderly nursing patients to return while the parish’s two main hospitals, Terrebonne General Hospital and Leonard Chabert Medical Center, have no inpatient beds available.
Administrators from both hospitals sent letters to the parish last week saying they won’t be able to take any nursing home patients if they need to be admitted overnight. Dove said that remains the case this week and likely won’t change until November.
Dove’s parish attorney, Julius Hebert, sent a letter Friday to the Louisiana Department of Health citing state laws that put the state in charge of “the transfer and safety of nursing home residents.” On Tuesday, Dove met with State Health Officer Dr. Joseph Kanter and other state officials to discuss next steps.
“My contention is I'm a parish president,” Dove said. “I could tell you everything about our infrastructure. But I'm not a doctor. I don't run a hospital.”
Dove says he’s also worried about a potential post-Ida surge of Covid as people return to a parish where just 34 percent of residents are fully vaccinated.
DePriest acknowledges that Dove has a legitimate concern about the lack of hospital beds after Ida’s devastating winds knocked off the roof at Terrebonne General. But he and others say there are other options besides closing the parish to his residents.
DePriest said the nursing homes can provide beds and skilled nursing so the hospitals can discharge patients and help ease their burden.
Plus, he said hospitals in Thibodaux, New Orleans and Morgan City have signed agreements to admit patients from his facilities, if they have an emergency that requires hospital care.
Terrebonne Parish Councilman Gerald Michel, a former pharmacy manager, said he has independently confirmed that nearby hospitals outside the parish, including Thibodaux Regional Medical Center in neighboring Lafourche Parish, are ready to take Houma nursing home patients.
“Each one of those patients has someone who is responsible for them,” Michel said. “So, let them sign a waiver if they need to. Explain to them the nearest hospital is Thibodaux General. But these people need to be in a comfortable situation.”
Michel said there’s “no good reason” to deny nursing home patients the option to return to fully functional facilities, and he called on Dove to make the call.
“Leadership involves making the hard decisions, not passing it off on someone else,” he said.
Clement said she hopes Dove doesn’t wait for LDH and takes action now.
“He needs to do whatever he can to get them back. And if Thibodaux or New Orleans, if they get sick, there's other options,” she said.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly said Parish Councilman Gerald Michel is a pharmacist. He is a former manager of pharmacies, but was never a licensed pharmacist.