Administrator Tom Annarella told board members at the start of the Tuesday evening meeting that fewer than 10 cases of the highly contagious disease have been confirmed, and that the county-run nursing home was reopened to the public and new residents Saturday.
Annarella made about five minutes of remarks to clear up what he called public and private misconceptions about the outbreak of scabies, which he said is not an uncommon occurrence in nursing homes. The outbreak has become a campaign issue in the race for County Board chairman, and comes in the midst of a labor grievance filed by employees regarding their workload.
“Our incident has seemed to derive a lot more press than what would normally be expected,” Annarella said.
But his remarks were followed by public comment from a resident’s family member who said the outbreak could have been handled better and earlier.
Valley Hi confirmed the first case July 1, the day after notifying the McHenry County Department of Health that it had potential cases on its hands. As part of Valley Hi’s action plan to deal with the disease, Annarella ordered the facility closed to new residents and to visitors of symptomatic patients, he told board members.
Norwegian, or crusted, scabies is a severe form of the disease caused by an infestation of the skin by the human itch mite, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. People with Norwegian scabies have thick crusts of skin that contain large numbers of mites and their eggs. The disease is spread by both direct skin-to-skin contact and contamination of clothing, bedding and furniture.
Nursing homes, extended-care facilities, prisons and other crowded places where close skin contact is frequent are common sites of scabies outbreaks, according to the CDC. Norwegian scabies is most common with the elderly, the disabled and people with compromised immune systems.
Since the first confirmed cases, all residents and staff have received two courses of treatment, which according to the health department involves oral medication and a cream applied from the neck down. People with confirmed cases, their roommates and other residents and staff with rashes have had at least four courses, Annarella said.
Annarella also stressed that the outbreak was not caused or made worse by staffing issues at the 128-bed home west of Woodstock. More than 70 employees have filed a grievance alleging that staff levels are insufficient and that overwork is contributing to increased use of sick time and resignations. Democratic state Rep. Jack Franks, who is running for County Board chairman against Republican candidate and County Board member Michael Walkup, has called attention to what he alleges is inadequate management and response.
“The staffing levels that are being discussed did not in any way contribute to scabies coming into the building, and they have not hindered our ability to address the cases once they were identified,” Annarella said.
Walkup and member Donna Kurtz, R-Crystal Lake, praised Annarella and his management abilities after his remarks. But Cary resident Christy Wagner, whose mother-in-law lives in Valley Hi, said there was “a failure to connect obvious dots.”
While Wagner also lauded her relative’s four-year stay at the home, she said she and other family members brought her mother-in-law’s rash, and those of other distressed residents, to staff’s attention weeks before the July 1 scabies confirmation. She also alleged that several members of the Valley Hi Operating Board that oversees the home first learned of the outbreak after reading about it in the newspaper or being turned away during visits.
“I feel, and our family feels, that the magnitude of this outbreak did not need to reach this point of escalation,” Wagner said.
Annarella, who has served as administrator since 2010, has been widely credited by County Board and staff with straightening out Valley Hi’s finances and operations. He was hired after a 2½-year period in which board members turned control of the facility over to a private company to enact needed reforms and staunch Valley Hi’s large annual operating deficits.