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Home > Featured > COVID-19 at Arbors: Allegations of slow response, insufficient PPE and little government oversight

COVID-19 at Arbors: Allegations of slow response, insufficient PPE and little government oversight

By Lucia Starbuck
A sign in front of Arbors Memory Care in Sparks says "Heroes Work Here," but recent employee allegations say conditions at the facility aren't safe for staff or patients. Image: Lucia Starbuck

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More than 60 percent of residents at Arbors Memory Care have tested positive for COVID-19. A staff member told This Is Reno that management was slow to implement safety procedures, isn’t providing adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), and the state health department has had little-to-no oversight at the state-regulated facility.

“I came in contact with somebody that tested positive, without proper PPE, being that we were given cloth masks,” a source told This Is Reno.

Arbors Memory Care in Sparks is an assisted living center for seniors with initial and developing signs of Alzheimer’s or those experiencing dementia.

Five staff members and 31 residents have tested positive for COVID-19 at Arbors Memory Care, and three residents have died as a result of complications from the virus as of May 18, according to the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS).

There are a little under 50 residents at Arbors Memory Care.

This Is Reno was contacted by a staff member from Arbors Memory Care, who alleged the center has not followed safety guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

We reached out to Arbors Memory Care over the weekend for comment. The facility’s media representative, in response, sent a press release regarding Arbors Memory Care’s response to COVID-19

We requested a formal interview on May 18, but were told that representatives from Arbors Memory Care are not available for interviews. 

Staff member speaks out

After This Is Reno published a previous story on the outbreak at Arbors Memory Care, which reported on the significant other of a certified nursing assistant (CNA) taking to Reddit to complain of a lack of PPE for staff, a medical technician at Arbors Memory Care reached out and echoed the same concerns. The employee alleged that the center’s statement is not accurate.

The employee asked to remain anonymous in order to not jeopardize their job, though.

As a medical technician, the employee said they come in close contact with about 20 residents to administer medicine. 

The source said on May 10, one of the residents was sent to the hospital after experiencing a fever and a cough. That resident died on May 12, the source said. 

Arbors Memory Care said in a statement that they had their first case of COVID-19 on May 12. Before that, staff and residents had not been tested for COVID-19, the source alleged.

This Is Reno previously reported that the first death at Arbors Memory Care facility was on May 15, and there were allegedly five deaths

Three deaths have been confirmed by DHHS as of May 18. The staff member alleged that the first COVID-19-related death was actually on May 12. 

Washoe County reported that there were two COVID-19-related deaths on May 12, a man in his 50s and a man in his 70s, both with underlying health conditions.

This Is Reno asked Arbors Memory Care and DHHS for a timeline of when the three confirmed COVID-19-related deaths occurred at the facility. The company did not provide one. 

The medical technician told This Is Reno that they sought their own COVID-19 test after engaging in close contact with the resident who died of COVID-19, before N95 masks were provided for staff, and after not being provided a date for when staff would be tested. 

Management is not reaching out to get us supplies that they need. So maybe we just need to do it ourselves.”

Some staff members got tested on May 14, while others did not get tested until May 17 at the facility.  

After getting tested, the employee began to self-quarantine at the beginning of last week.

“I came in contact with somebody that tested positive, without proper PPE, being that we were given cloth masks,” the employee said.

They contacted their doctor and went to get tested at another site. The source was told by management that not showing up for their next shift would be considered job abandonment and would result in her termination. 

“Being that I took proper protocol from the health department, from my physician and from the nurse that tested me for COVID-19, they said to treat it like I have it and quarantine for 14 days,” the source added.

A media representative for Arbors Memory Care, John Heitkemper, said the following in response to allegations that staff are being told to come back to work after being tested for COVID-19:

“Healthcare workers are considered ‘essential workers,’ so they would not be asked to isolate if they tested negative,” he said. “Our plan going forward is to continue weekly testing of negative initial test results.”

The source received test results a week later and tested negative and plans on completing a two-week quarantine, not knowing if they still have a job.

The source said they have not been interviewed about who they have come in contact with or been notified if they have been exposed to COVID-19 by a contact tracer with the Washoe County Health District as of May 18.

Allegations: Reusing masks, no face shields, improperly fitted PPE

The medical technician told This Is Reno that staff were provided with home-made cloth masks and were being instructed to put them in their ovens or washing machines at their own homes to disinfect them, before the week of May 11.

The catalyst to get Arbors Memory Care’s management to start taking safety protocols for the COVID-19 pandemic seriously was a resident being hospitalized, testing positive for COVID-19 and passing away, the source said. 

The source said the facility had 16 fluidshield N95 masks, that resemble duckbills, that were provided on May 12, and staff were instructed to reuse the masks for five days. The source also said the masks are placed in a paper bag at the end of each day and disinfected using an unidentified spray bottle.

An employee in a gown, booties, and mask waits to escort EMTs into the facility Sunday, May 17. Image: Lucia Starbuck
An Arbors employee in a gown, booties, and mask waits to escort EMTs into the facility Sunday, May 17. Image: Lucia Starbuck

“If I’m not provided proper PPE, I might as well go in there with nothing and then put my family at risk, and myself,” the employee stated.

Arbors Memory Care insists it has sufficient PPE, including masks and face shields, but the facility’s spokesperson would not provide the exact numbers of masks, gloves, gowns, face shields or other PPE that the facility has on hand.

“We have five N95 masks per direct care worker,” Heitkemper wrote in an email to This Is Reno. “We also have access to the sterilization [Battelle] procedure plant that will allow us to sterilize and reuse up to 20 times. We have access to face shields and goggles.”

Battelle’s decontamination system uses vapor stage hydrogen peroxide to disinfect items and has been applied within shipping containers to disinfect PPE during the pandemic.

Arbors Memory Care did not comment if there is a shipping container on site or what that process looks like at the facility in time for publication.

The employee alleged that PPE provided isn’t the type specified for protection against COVID-19, isn’t being fitted properly, and, in the case of gowns, is being reused and worn by different people each shift. They said having PPE that doesn’t fit is as bad as having no PPE at all.

“Maybe people who have the PPE sitting at home in their garage might donate it, just like it has been done for hospitals. Maybe then, we would get the supplies that we need, but management is not reaching out to get us supplies that they need. So maybe we just need to do it ourselves,” the source explained.

Point of exposure unknown

It is unknown how the residents and staff at Arbors Memory Care were first exposed to COVID-19—only that it spread to more than half of the residents within a week.

The medical technician told This Is Reno that management was slow to enforce strict safety procedures.

Arbors Memory Care’s spokesperson said, however, the facility has taken a litany of precautions to ensure safety for staff and residents.

This Is Reno asked what the infection control training consisted of but did not receive an answer.

Signage at the night entrance of Arbors Memory Care indicates who is and isn't permitted within the facility.
Signage at the night entrance of Arbors Memory Care indicates who is and isn’t permitted within the facility. Image: Lucia Starbuck

The facility restricted visitation in mid-March, only allowing essential medical personnel inside. Arbors Memory Care’s statement included the following about the screening process: 

“All who enter our communities are temperature screened by a temporal thermometer and must affirm a series of necessary questions in regard to COVID-19 risk factors attesting they have no signs nor symptoms, and have not traveled to an area of outbreak. All essential medical visitors must sign in, sharing their contact information, and agreement to policies regarding COVID-19.”

The medical technician said they had concerns before the facility saw an outbreak. The employee said it was reported that a resident died in April of natural causes due to progression of dementia, but leading up to his passing, he was being treated for an upper respiratory illness.

Arbors Memory Care did not comment on this death. 

County health department remains hands-off

The Washoe County Health District has stated multiple times that the state is in charge of providing COVID-19 tests and investigating outbreaks at state-licensed facilities.

The medical technician said the Washoe County Health District should be more involved.

The state health department, DHHS, provided COVID-19 test collection kits, but did not have their own staff administer the tests. Instead, an in-house registered nurse performed the COVID-19 test, according to the medical technician. 

All staff and residents have been tested for COVID-19 as of May 18, according to Shannon Litz, the public information officer for DHHS. She issued the following statement:

“The Nevada Bureau of Health Care Quality and Compliance (HCQC) and the Division’s Office of Public Health Investigations and Epidemiology (OPHIE) are collaborating with the facility and providing support and guidance to care for positive residents including review of the facility design in order to establish two distinct areas – one for COVID-19 positive residents and one for those who have tested negative. Staff would be assigned to one area. 

Additionally, Battle Born Medical Corps has been in contact with Arbors Memory Care to assist with any staffing needs the facility may have, and the facility received a delivery of personal protective equipment (PPE) last week including masks, gowns and cleaning products to disinfect the facility. The Division is in contact with the facility and has provided technical guidance, follow-up calls to ensure understanding of guidance, a hotline for Q&A, outbreak tracking, contact tracing, support for obtaining PPE, and on-site visits.”

HCQC made an on-site visit to Arbors Memory Care on May 14. Heitkemper said there were no official results of the visit.

“The inspection was just to make sure we had everything in place and plans for how we were handling the testing, universal precautions and isolation plans,” Heitkemper said in an email to This Is Reno. “There were no ‘results’ other than they said we were doing all the right things and left satisfied with our processes, procedures and plans going forward.”

No complaints of an unsafe work environment have been made to Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) as of May 18, according to Teri Williams of the Nevada Department of Business and Industry.

Arbors Memory Care’s spokesperson said two staff members are self-isolating due to potential risk and one left due to COVID-19 fears as of May 18. The facility stated that they have stable staffing, but are accepting help from volunteers.

The medical technician said help from DHHS has come too little too late, and the outbreak could have been avoided in the first place.

“It saddens me. It does. If it was taken seriously, this wouldn’t have happened. There’s many facilities out there that are taking it seriously,” the care facility’s employee said.

Support This Is Reno’s COVID-19 news coverage

We are reporting daily on how the coronavirus is impacting the Reno area. This coverage is outside of our paywall, provided free of charge. Please help us continue by becoming a subscriber or contributing a tax-deductible donation to our COVID-19 news fund. Any amount is appreciated.

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2 comments

Avatar
Beverly Colgan May 20, 2020 - 12:45 pm

Brava, Lucia Starbuck, for excellent reporting.

Avatar
John Gardner May 20, 2020 - 11:02 am

The State has been lax in this area far longer than the Covid crisis, but it really shows up now. I asked early in March was steps the State was taking to ensure the vulnerable were protected. Never received an answer nor did I see any general guideline for facilities. Eventually, the State began publishing a little data about facilities where there were positive cases, but it was still evident no particular focus/emphasis was being given.

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