COVID-19 outbreak at Barron Center puts Portland, residents on alert

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The city-owned Barron Center on Brighton Avenue is now a focus of coronavirus attention in Portland after more than 100 cases of COVID-19 have led to a dozen deaths.

Barron Center Administrator Rebecca Gagnon said the long-term care and rehabilitation facility was in good shape through most of 2020, but cases spiked in December.

The situation has improved lately, she said, with just two residents and one staff member still under 14-day quarantines.

“Overall, the staff is doing the best they can, given the current set of circumstances,” Gagnon said. “They’ve been pretty diligent with ensuring they are mindful with their community interactions and cognizant of how those community interactions impact the residents.”

The Barron Center at 1145 Brighton Ave., a long-term care and rehabilitation facility owned by the city of Portland, is being monitored for COVID-19. (Portland Phoenix/Colin Ellis)

Jackie Farwell, communications director for the state Department of Health and Human Services, said DHHS licensing staff have visited the Barron Center seven times since the start of the pandemic last March. The most recent visit on Jan. 26 was “an on-site-focused infection control survey” directed by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Farwell said, due to the facility reporting new COVID-19 cases.

Farwell said the survey results are not available yet, but no deficiencies were cited in previous surveys that would have required the Barron Center to submit regular reports.

All nursing homes are required to report to the CDC’s National Healthcare Safety Network, she added. According to this data, there have been more than 1,300 confirmed cases in nursing home residents around the state and 200 deaths.

Robert Long, communications director for the Maine CDC, provided the most recent outbreak investigation numbers as of Jan. 27. In that data set, the Barron Center was listed twice for investigations: one investigation was opened at the end of May 2020 and concluded on June 25. It concluded there were no deaths, but one resident and three staff members had the virus.

The second investigation, which opened in November and has not concluded, has so far indicated a total of 12 deaths. It also said 71 residents and 30 staffers have had the virus in this current investigation.

Gagnon didn’t have a specific cause of the outbreak, but said the Barron Center faces the same challenges faced by any nursing home. While it hasn’t allowed visitors for many months, she said it can be challenging if staff face exposure outside of the building and then unknowingly bring the virus in.

Gagnon said the Barron Center now has 124 residents and has not been accepting new admissions during the pandemic, which is standard for nursing homes. She said there are about 250 staff members.

The city acknowledged the outbreak at the Barron Center last week, including it on a list of several city-run facilities experiencing outbreaks, including the Family Shelter and the Oxford Street Shelter. City staff, including Mayor Kate Snyder, said these outbreaks should remind city residents to continue to be mindful of the coronavirus pandemic and not let up efforts to slow the spread.

In a press release, Snyder urged residents to continue wearing masks and remain physically distant from others, even as a vaccine is being distributed.

City Manager Jon Jennings said the city will continue to do everything it can to manage staff who have been affected by the virus in one way or another.

“In addition to staff who have been personally affected, others are dealing with the way this has impacted our operations, on top of all of their other daily responsibilities,” Jennings said in the release. “Many have been working around the clock as issues arise and contingency plans must be activated. My top priority is for the safety of the residents of this city and our city staff.”

The city said staff and the CDC have been working on a system to distribute vaccine when it is available, including vaccinations for public-facing employees, Barron Center guests, and people living in city shelters. 

The Barron Center has already had two vaccination clinics, the city said; Gagnon said about 85 percent of the staff is now vaccinated.

The CDC is also finalizing plans to use the Portland Exposition Building on Park Avenue as a mass vaccination site.

The Barron Center has received roughly $500,000 of COVID-19 relief funding in the city’s fiscal year 2021 budget, according to Finance Director Brendan O’Connell.

Funding in the upcoming fiscal 2022 budget remains unclear.

Edited Feb. 3, 2021, to correct the number of infections and deaths reported by the Maine CDC. The agency attributed the inaccurate information to a “data glitch.” Barron Center officials had the opportunity to provide their own information but deferred to the CDC’s data.