Belfast Telegraph

Five died in care home flu outbreak before the authorities were alerted

By Donna Deeney and Anita Guidera

Health authorities were left in the dark about a spate of deaths at a Co Donegal nursing home until after five residents had died and illness had swept through the facility, it has emerged.

Influenza claimed the lives of the six elderly people who died in the private nursing home, tests confirmed on Tuesday night.

Eleven other residents at Nazareth House at Fahan, near Buncrana in Co Donegal, are also suffering with respiratory symptoms similar to the residents who died.

The Sisters of Nazareth, the order of nuns who run the private home, expressed their deepest condolences on the death of six residents.

“This is an extremely upsetting time for the families of the deceased and we continue to provide the residents at Nazareth Nursing Home with the highest standard of care,” a spokesman said.

The Republic’s Health Service Executive (HSE) said it was not told of the flu deaths among residents until last Sunday night.

Five pensioners — aged between 85 and 98 years — were already dead when the nursing home's medical officer contacted the HSE's public health unit.

A sixth resident died of the same strain of flu that killed the others last Monday, HSE spokesman Dr Peter Wright confirmed.

Obituary notices show deaths of a number of residents at the Nazareth House over the past two weeks.

These included Margaret McGuire, formerly of Carndonagh, and Bill Nicholl of Malin, who were both buried on Tuesday morning.

The funerals of Margaret Canavan and Mary Gill, both from Moville, were held on March 25.

Michael Plunkett McVeigh, another resident who was originally from Buncrana, died on March 29 at Letterkenny Hospital — the same day Bernard Breslin, of Redcastle, died in hospital.

Doctors on Tuesday remained concerned about a small number of those infected because of their frailty.

Dr Wright was speaking after laboratory tests confirmed the AH3 strain of flu, which can be particularly dangerous for elderly people, was responsible for the deaths of all the residents.

He said he could not comment on whether lives would have been saved if authorities were alerted earlier, but it was good practice to inform the public health unit as soon as possible. Three of the residents of the home overlooking Lough Swilly were transferred to Letterkenny Hospital, where they died of flu complications.

Infection control nurses have been transferred to the home and inspectors from the Republic’s Health Information and Quality Authority were also on site.

It also emerged on Tuesday that a new resident was admitted to the home on Saturday.

Local Fine Gael councillor Peter McLaughlin said there are serious questions to be asked about when the alarm was raised and the subsequent management of the crisis.

He said: “We now know that it was decided not to admit any new residents into Nazareth House from Sunday, but at that stage there were already 27 residents very sick and six people dead.

“This is a home for elderly residents and it is not uncommon for people to die, so one or even two deaths would not have necessarily caused any alarm.

“But with such a high number of residents ill, the HSE should have taken action.

“We will need to know when they were first informed and who it was that actually finally decided to quarantine the home.

“This is a well-respected home with a reputation of excellent care and no-one is disputing the high level of care and attention that the staff give the residents.

“But there seems to be a failure at administration level whereby either the HSE were not informed soon enough that such a high number of residents were sick, or the HSE were too slow in taking action.

“We already know these deaths occurred over 11 days, although five were over five days and a total of 27 residents were suffering from respiratory problems, so the alarm should have been raised before it was.

“And I don't think allowing a new admission on Saturday was a wise move,” said a concerned Mr McLaughlin.

Dr Darina O'Flanagan, head of the Health Protection Surveillance Centre, revealed that four of the six people who died had been vaccinated against the influenza virus.

However, she pointed out that the vaccine can be less effective in elderly people whose immune systems are weakened.

Dr O’Flanagan also pointed out that the AH3 strain had changed slightly and it was an “imperfect fit” with the AH3 component of the vaccine which therefore would have reduced some of its effectiveness.

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