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State continues investigating Sparks care facility as COVID-19-related deaths rise


The first case of COVID-19 at Arbors Memory Care, a state-licensed care facility, was reported on May 12, and there have been 14 COVID-19-related deaths since that time. 

More than 30 residents and six staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 within a month, according to the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS)’s dashboard, which was last updated in June 12.

A little over 67 percent of the residents, or 33 total, at Arbors Memory Care have tested positive for COVID-19, and 12 people have recovered from the coronavirus disease.

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

DHHS Public Information Officer Shannon Litz told This Is Reno June 12 why an outbreak of COVID-19 occurred at Arbors Memory Care.

“The residents in this facility did not present with symptoms when they became infected. One of the residents was quite social and visited other residents every day. The resident was positive for COVID-19 when tested, which was after the exposures had already occurred,” she said.

DHHS began an investigation into Arbors Memory Care as of May 21.

On-site investigations take between two hours and five days, depending on the situation, according to Litz. She said an inspector will conduct interviews, document reviews and observations during an investigation. Litz did not state exactly how often DHHS staff are physically at Arbors Memory Care. 

“[State staff are on site] when an issue is identified that needs to be addressed, as well as when requested by the facility,” Litz stated.

Litz said after leaving the facility, follow ups are completed through phone interviews, and DHHS is continuing to check up on Arbors Memory Care.

“DHHS continues to visit the facility to assist with education and checking on progress with the issues identified initially, as well as providing resources for problems as they are identified,” she said.

Litz said that DHHS staff are working with “residents, building environmental management, kitchen staff and laundry staff, as well as management.”

This Is Reno reached out to Arbors Memory Care’s media representative, John Heitkemper, on June 11. He did not respond, but Arbors Memory Care released a statement on its Facebook page on June 12.

The statement says that the facility is working with DHHS for ongoing COVID-19 testing for residents and staff. The facility stated residents must receive two negative test results in order for it to be determined that they recovered.

Arbors Memory Care was awarded $10,000 by the COVID-19 Relief Fund Advisory Committee, under the Community Foundation of Western Nevada, for Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and cleaning supplies. The Community Foundation of Western Nevada wrote the following on its website regarding the funding:

“Because facilities such as Arbors Memory Care are not considered a skilled nursing facility, they are not eligible to receive federal funds from the federal funds designated for COVID-19 support from the Department of Health and Human Services.”

Staff members at Arbors Memory Care alleged DHHS is failing to speak with caregivers who are working directly with residents and that problems persist at the facility.

Staff member loses job while completing quarantine

This Is Reno previously talked with a significant other of a certified nursing assistant, who alleged there was not a sufficient amount of PPE for staff. A medical technician for the facility echoed those same concerns.

OSHA letter about Arbors Memory Care.

The facility has an adequate amount of masks, gowns, face shields, gloves and goggles for staff members, according to the med tech.

The employee previously stated that they were exposed to a resident who had tested positive for COVID-19 when staff members were only provided with cloth masks prior to May 11. The employee sought their own testing, outside of the facility, and had a note from their doctor to self-isolate for two weeks.

The employee alleged that management said staying home would be considered job abandonment

The staff member has not worked at the facility since starting their quarantine on May 12. They got their test result on May 19, which was negative, but had plans to complete their two week quarantine. The employee said they were told by a payroll employee to pick up their last paycheck on May 19. 

“I feel like it was wrongful of them because I have children. I have a son with an underlying condition. He has lung conditions. So taking that time because I was exposed wearing a cloth mask, I think it was wrongful of them because I’m putting not only myself, but my family at risk,” the employee said.

Litz said DHHS is unaware of this issue. 

The employee filed a complaint to the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regarding the reuse of personal protective equipment, like gowns, a lack of training in contagious disease control, using unidentifiable cleaner and being understaffed. 

The staff member received a letter back from OSHA on May 22. 

“An investigation has been initiated requiring a written response from the employer regarding your complaint items,” the letter stated. “You will be informed of the results of our investigation when they are available.”

The letter went on to say that the employee should not be punished or discriminated against for job safety and health activities, and it cited the Nevada Occupational Safety and Health Act, NRS 618.445, which states in part: 

“A person shall not discharge or in any manner discriminate against any employee because the employee has filed any complaint.”

The staff member has not heard back from OSHA yet.  

OSHA did not have any complaints from staff members from Arbors Memory Care as of May 18, Teri Williams of the Nevada Department of Business and Industry told This Is Reno.

This Is Reno sent a follow-up email to Williams on June 11, asking for information regarding complaints. Williams said she is checking into it but has not provided that information as of June 15.

No comment on volunteers, staff stretched thin

This Is Reno also talked to an additional employee who is still working inside of the facility and said they are in communication with upper management of Arbors Memory Care, but did not want to provide their position title in fear of losing their job. The staff member said the facility is severely short-staffed.

The staff member told This Is Reno there were around 30 caregivers working directly with about 50 residents before the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The employee alleged there are currently about 10 staff members caring for about 30 residents still living in Arbors Memory Care. 

“They’re so desperate for staff. They don’t care about their staff’s health or anyone else’s; they’re putting so many lives at risk,” the employee said.

The staff member who is no longer working at Arbors Memory Care and the significant other of the CNA have also previously echoed these concerns.

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

On May 18, Arbors Memory Care released a statement saying they have stable staffing but are accepting volunteer assistance

Litz with DHHS told This Is Reno Gov. Steve Sisolak’s Battle Born Medical Corps was in contact with the facility for staffing needs on May 18.

However, the staff member said as of June 10, only one volunteer has been present at Arbors Memory Care and is in charge of medication disposal, or the process of destroying narcotics that are not being used, instead of directly caring for residents.

DHHS and Arbors Memory Care did not comment on how many volunteers are currently helping at the facility.

Arbors Memory Care has made 13 posts about job offers on its Facebook page, Arbors Memory Care Community, since February 21. One post was in February, four in March, three in April and five during the month of May, for jobs including a senior caregiver, a housekeeper, a cook, a life enrichment activities assistant/bus driver and a medical technician. 

Arbors Memory Care also has four job listings on its website for a medical technician, a caregiver, a cook and an activity assistant.

Being a caregiver and medical technician for Arbors Memory Care is an entry level position, only requiring a high school education, according to the job applications on the facility’s website. The employee said caregivers make about $12 to $13 an hour while medical technicians make about $13 to $14. 

The employee said some staff are making “Heroes Pay” for working on the side of the facility where residents who have tested positive for COVID-19 are residing, but they said it is unfair as some staff are working on both sides, and residents who are living in the negative area of the facility are testing positive. 

The employee also alleged employees are not receiving payment or workers’ compensation while completing their two-week quarantine which, according to the source, is leading staff members to return to work, even if they are still feeling sick, in order to make money.

Arbors Memory Care did not respond to requests for comment.

Sporadic testing alleged 

Arbors Memory Care staff and residents were all tested by May 18, and again on June 8 and 9, according to the staff member. But in between then, testing for residents has been sporadic, and some staff are seeking their own tests, the employee alleged.

Arbors Memory Care sent This Is Reno a statement on May 18 at about 2 p.m. that staff and residents at the facility need to be tested for COVID-19 weekly, then sent This Is Reno a revised statement on May 18 at 4:30 p.m. that Arbors Memory Care is working with Washoe County health departments the State of Nevada for ongoing testing.

Litz with DHHS also did not answer regarding how often residents and staff are getting tested.

“Testing is based on conversations with, and information provided by, the Office of Public Health Investigations and Epidemiology,” Litz said.

Litz said DHHS is continuing to visit Arbors Memory Care and explained why an investigation was conducted in the first place.

“The facility was identified as having positive COVID-19 cases after an infection control inspection was conducted at the facility and the Division investigates all COVID-19 cases in Nevada-licensed facilities,” Litz said. “Since this facility is not a medical facility, there were concerns that the facility may have needed support in dealing with the challenges that occurred at the facility.”

The current employee and former employee both said Arbors Memory Care is being run like a business, and staff are limited in what they can do as it is not a medical facility.

Residents pay from $4,000 to $5,000 per month, the current employee said. 

A shared suite at Arbors Memory Care costs $4,311 and a private suite costs $5,173 according to Seniorly, a website that helps seniors find housing.

“Never have I questioned resident care before,” the former employee said. “But since the pandemic it seems like upper management is looking at it for more of a business point of view, rather than resident care. A few residents are going without proper care. They’re being neglected due to short staff.”

The former employee and current employee both said Arbors Memory Care should close its doors.

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.