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State investigating Sparks care facility after deaths, COVID-19 outbreak


More than 65 percent of residents at Arbors Memory Care have tested positive for COVID-19 and three residents died due to the virus within a week. 

Six staff members and 32 residents contracted COVID-19 as of May 22, according to the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). Now, a state investigation is underway.

“[The Nevada Department of Health and Human Services] has an open investigation into Arbors Memory Care. Since there is an active investigation, there are no further details to provide at this time,” DHHS spokesperson Shannon Litz said in an email.

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

This Is Reno talked to a concerned significant other of a certified nursing assistant at the facility, who alleged that there was not adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), including face shields, to properly protect the staff. The source also told us that their partner didn’t get tested for COVID-19 until May 17. The first confirmed case of COVID-19 was reported on May 12.

This Is Reno also spoke with a medical technician at the facility, who alleged that they were told it would be considered job abandonment if they didn’t return to work before receiving their COVID-19 test results, which they sought themselves, and echoed the same concerns that there isn’t adequate PPE.

“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.

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

The source also alleged that management has been slow to respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. The employee said that a resident passed away on April 30 after experiencing a cough and fever for over a week. The staff member said it was reported that the resident died of natural causes due to the progression of their dementia, but leading up to his passing, he was being treated for an upper respiratory illness.

Arbors Memory Care is being investigated by DHHS as of May 21, according to Shannon Litz, the public information officer for DHHS. 

PPE distributed, lack of staff and no testing for staff

The staff member reached out to This Is Reno on May 22 to provide an update. The employee said staff and management have not been notified about DHHS’ investigation.

Arbors Memory Care did not respond to requests for comment about the investigation in time for publication.

The employee said that the facility has been receiving daily shipments of PPE, which started on May 21, including disposable gowns, gloves and face shields, but still no N95 respirators.

The employee said staffing is a concern, alleging there are fewer than 10 staff members still working at the facility to care for about 35 residents. They said there are usually 20 staff members employed at the facility.

DHHS told This Is Reno that the Governor’s Battle Born Medical Corps has been in contact with Arbors Memory Care to provide staffing. 

The employee alleged that the facility has not seen any outside volunteers come to help as of May 22 and that management asked staff to live at Arbors Memory Care, to provide care around the clock.

The employee said staff members are terrified by this idea. The employee said staff already do not feel like there is a safe place to eat lunch or remove their masks or to take a sip of water. The source said other staff members are single mothers and can’t sleep at the facility.

Each facility is required to have their own infection control plan, and then follow it.”

The employee alleges that some staff are afraid to say no in fear that management will consider their refusal as job abandonment.

The source said two wellness coordinators are currently taking turns sleeping there to cater to the residents at all times.

This Is Reno reached out to Arbors Memory Care about these allegations but did not receive a comment in time for publication.

Arbors Memory Care sent This Is Reno a statement on May 18 at about 2 p.m. that said the facility needs to have staff and residents tested for COVID-19 weekly moving forward.

“We do believe that if access to regular testing prior to symptoms had been available, it would have helped to prevent this situation,” the facility’s statement read. “Ideally, we would like to see regular weekly testing on an ongoing basis but are unsure as if that access will be available.”

Then, at around 4:30 p.m. Arbors Memory Care sent This Is Reno another statement titled, Arbors May 18 update [4], which instead said the facility is working with the State of Nevada and Washoe County health departments for ongoing testing.

This Is Reno reached out to Arbors Memory Care to confirm if staff and residents will be getting tested weekly but did not receive a comment in time for publication.

The staff member told This Is Reno that Arbor Memory Care’s statement is false. She alleges that staff is told to seek testing at Saint Mary’s Regional Medical Center.

Arbors Memory Care's April newsletter
Arbors Memory Care’s April newsletter showcased their staff’s hard work during the pandemic. It’s unknown when the photos were taken.

This Is Reno obtained an email that was sent to family members of residents living at Arbors Memory Care, which said residents who tested negative during the first round of COVID-19 testing will be tested again. 

DHHS did not comment on if the department has plans to distribute COVID-19 tests weekly to the Arbors Memory Care.

Three residents at Arbors Memory Care have died due to COVID-19. Other residents who test positive for the virus and are experiencing symptoms are sent to the hospital. This Is Reno asked DHHS for a timeline of when the deaths and hospitalizations occurred but did not receive a response.

Outbreaks continue at state-regulated facilities

Gov. Steve Sisolak’s Roadmap to Recovery sets several benchmarks that Nevada must meet in order to continue reopening. One of those requirements is to protect vulnerable communities.

Criteria 5 of Roadmap to Recovery states, “Sustained ability to protect vulnerable populations; outbreaks minimized in special settings like health facilities and nursing homes.”

However, within two weeks of Nevada entering phase one of reopening, which allows dine-in restaurants, salons to reopen and some retail activity inside stores, multiple state-regulated nursing facilities have seen outbreaks of COVID-19.

The Heights of Summerlin, a nursing home in Las Vegas, reported that an additional 16 residents died due to COVID-19 last week, adding to a total of 24 resident deaths at the facility. 

At The Heights of Summerlin, 76 residents and 57 staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 as of May 21, according to DHHS.

The Heights of Summerlin is a 190-bed, state-regulated skilled nursing facility, meaning it is a medical treatment center staffed with medical professionals.

DHHS is also investigating The Heights of Summerlin, according to the Las Vegas Review-Journal

The Heights of Summerlin has the highest rate of COVID-19 infections and deaths, followed by Lakeside Health and Wellness located in Reno, where 20 residents and one staff member have died due to COVID-19 as of May 21, according to DHHS. These deaths occurred the week before Nevada entered Phase One of reopening.

State comments on why outbreaks are occuring

DHHS Director Richard Whitley

DHHS Director Richard Whitley discussed what is leading to outbreaks in nursing facilities during a meeting of the Legislative Committee on Health Care on May 20.

He said the three main causes are inappropriate use of PPE, breaches in isolation of residents who are infected with COVID-19 and hand-washing.

Arbors Memory Care’s online newsletters show photos of staff not wearing PPE. 

“Each facility is required to have their own infection control plan, and then follow it. So, when they don’t follow it, that’s when we see these sorts of issues,” Whitley said.

Whitley also said several facilities in Nevada have had issues with infection control. 

In a statement, Arbors Memory Care said that staff was trained on infection control. However, the staff member alleges that training consisted of how to wash one’s hands and remove PPE. Arbors Memory Care did not comment on what this training consisted of.

Whitley said DHHS has received a fair number of complaints from staff at state-regulated facilities of unsafe work environments. He said DHHS staff physically go to facilities with outbreaks.

“When we go out to the facility, as with the Lakeside facility, the skilled nursing facility in Reno … our staff stay on site until patients are safe,” Whitley said. “Until they remediate the immediate risks to patients, they don’t leave.”

The Nevada Bureau of Health Care Quality and Compliance (HCQC) made an on-site visit to Arbors Memory Care on May 14. DHHS did not comment if the department’s immediate staff had been to the facility physically.

Whitley argued that Nevada is more transparent about outbreaks at state-regulated nursing facilities than other states during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Nevada also is transparent,” Whitley said. “There are still many states that will not share the information about facilities, outbreak or deaths.”

DHHS has a dashboard that tracks COVID-19 infections and deaths amongst staff and residents at state-regulated nursing facilities. 

There have been 90 residents and three staff members deaths due to COVID-19 in state-regulated nursing facilities as of May 21. There have been 381 COVID-19-related deaths in Nevada as of May 21.

About a quarter of COVID-19-related deaths in Nevada are from residents at state-regulated nursing facilities.

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.