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Spike in COVID-19 cases at Sparks assisted living facility


Allegations surface of insufficient PPE and COVID-19 tests

Three days into phase 1 of Gov. Steve Sisolak’s reopening plan, which allowed a significant number of businesses to open their doors, the Arbors Memory Care saw its first positive COVID-19 case, and several days later, a confirmed COVID-19-related death and over 30 positive cases of COVID-19.

Arbors Memory Care is a state-regulated, assisted living center for seniors with initial and developing signs of Alzheimer’s or those experiencing dementia, located in Sparks.

Arbors Memory Care had its first resident test positive for COVID-19 on May 12. 

The Nevada Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) reported that four residents had tested positive for COVID-19 and one resident had died of COVID-19 as of 8:30 a.m. on May 15.

Washoe County saw the largest spike of positive COVID-19 cases in Washoe County on May 17. The county reported 54 new positive cases of COVID-19 and attributed half of them to an outbreak at Arbors Memory Care.

A Reddit user who voiced concern for his significant other, who is a staff member at the facility, told This Is Reno that there has been a spike in cases and deaths since DHHS has provided its most recent data. The data is only updated Mondays through Fridays.

This Is Reno reached out to DHHS and the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health for the updated numbers of positive COVID-19 cases and deaths of residents at Arbors Memory Care, but did not hear back in time for publication.

This Is Reno was able to speak with a media representative for Arbors Memory Care, but was not provided updated numbers of positive COVID-19 cases or COVID-19 related deaths.

Washoe County reported one COVID-19 related death on May 15 and May 17, and no COVID-19 related deaths on May 16.

Concerns about exposure to staff

The significant other of a certified nursing assistant (CNA) who works at Arbors Memory Care took to Reddit on r/Reno, pleading that the facility needed to put protections in place for the staff.

This Is Reno spoke with the Reddit user over the phone, who asked to remain anonymous to not jeopardize his partner’s job. 

He alleged that there have been five deaths and more than 30 positive cases of COVID-19 among Arbors residents as of May 17. He also said that the first confirmed COVID-19-related death in the facility was in line with the death that was reported by Washoe County on May 15.

He said about half of the residents who have tested positive for COVID-19 have been hospitalized.

“It’s so frustrating because everything’s trying to open back up, and then this happens,” he told This Is Reno.

He is worried for his significant other, whom he said was caring for the resident who died on the night before that person passed. The CNA’s role involves direct patient contact, including feeding and administering medication to residents. 

The man added that he works around patients who have cancer. He’s worried about being exposed by his partner and then spreading the virus to the patients he works near.

He said his partner was not notified that she had been exposed to COVID-19 by a contact tracer with the Washoe County Health District.

A sign outside Arbors Memory Care hails the facility’s workers as heroes, but an anonymous Reddit user said management isn’t providing enough PPE to protect those workers from COVID-19. Image: Lucia Starbuck

Allegations of a lack of PPE

According to the Reddit user, his partner was recently given a N95 duckbill mask, a “paper-thin gown” and gloves, but staff are not provided any face shields. He also said the facility doesn’t have hand sanitizer readily available all of the time, and in the past staff has had to wear home-made masks.

He said he took her story to Reddit, mostly as a plea to the community to donate personal protective equipment (PPE) to the facility. 

“I told her to quit, but she won’t. But if she is going to work, I need her to be protected,” he told This Is Reno.

Arbors Memory Care said in a press release the facility has all the necessary PPE, including face shields.

The press release also stated that the Nevada Bureau of Healthcare, Quality, and Compliance (HCQC), part of the state’s DHHS, completed an on-site visit May 14. 

“The purpose of the visit was to verify that infection control practices remain in place and offer any assistance as needed,” Arbors Memory Care said in regards to the visit.

The press release did not indicate the results of the visit. This Is Reno reached out to HCQC to learn about the results but did not hear back in time for publication.

Confusion on health district oversight

The Washoe County Health District has stated multiple times that state-regulated facilities fall under DHHS’ care. 

This Is Reno reached out to DHHS to learn about the steps being taken to protect residents and staff at the facility, but did not hear back in time for publication.

The Reddit user also alleged that a majority of the staff have quit. He sent This Is Reno a message correspondence with another Reddit user, who told him that they work for the state and were asked to volunteer at Arbors Memory Care, indicating that DHHS is aware of the workforce shortfall.

There was confusion on who should administer the COVID-19 tests: the Washoe County Health District or the state health district DHHS. 

The communications director for the Washoe County Health District, Scott Oxarart, said that the Health District can provide care facilities with mobile COVID-19 tests from SDI Labs. 

Oxarart said the Health District was notified that Arbors Memory Care requested COVID-19 tests on May 13. He said the Health District coordinated with DHHS, and learned that the state was administering tests. 

“It wasn’t a deal where we denied them. We just saw that the state had already ordered them, so that was good,” Oxarart said, “If the state didn’t have any, we would have provided some of the ones that we procure, those SDI kits.”

A health worker prepares a swab for COVID-19 testing at Washoe County’s drive-through testing site at the Reno Livestock Events Center. The site now has capacity to test asymptomatic health care workers. Image: Eric Marks

A media representative for Arbors Memory Care, John Heitkemper, said that DHHS has tested all of the residents and the staff at the facility for COVID-19.

However, according to the Reddit user, his significant other had not been tested for COVID-19 as of May 16. She was told that she would be tested on May 16 but was not. She was tested on May 17, five days after the first positive case of COVID-19 was confirmed. 

“It seems like there’s a very underwhelming response to what’s going on there,” he said. “I work in the health care setting, too, and I’m concerned, first for her and the residents there. But then, if she has it, and I spread it, and then I start to catalyze numbers of people, you know, it’s scary stuff.”

Oxarart said the two can fill out a risk assessment form on their own accord to be tested at the Washoe County Health District’s drive-thru testing site at the Livestock Events Center. He said several staff from Arbors Memory Care have been tested there. 

Oxarart said the testing site now has the capacity to test health care workers even if they’re not showing symptoms of COVID-19.

Lucia Starbuck
Lucia Starbuck
Lucia Starbuck is a graduate of University of Nevada, Reynolds School of Journalism. She has reported on issues impacting Northern Nevada, including the affordable housing crisis, a lack of oral healthcare and challenges voters with disabilities face while trying to participate in the election process. She has directed and filmed two documentaries about homelessness.Through reporting, Lucia strives to shine a light on the challenges vulnerable populations face in our community.