The impact from the coronavirus on elderly residents inside nursing homes and assisted living care facilities in San Diego County is finally beginning to unfold.
State mandates that require long-term care homes to report the number of infections and deaths of elderly residents, and the staff that care for them, reveal staggering numbers.
But many fear the current numbers show only a brief snapshot of the total picture.
According to state numbers obtained by NBC 7 Investigates, at least 201 healthcare workers and 418 residents inside local nursing homes have tested positive for COVID-19 since the beginning of the outbreak. Meanwhile, at least 41 COVID-19 deaths have been confirmed at three local nursing homes. In addition, nine other facilities are reporting deaths from COVID-19 but are not releasing exact figures, meaning the death toll could be much higher.
Rebecca Niebla’s 94-year-old grandmother, Esther Hernandez, was a resident at the Windsor Garden Convalescent Home in National City. Niebla told NBC 7 Investigates that since February her visits consisted of viewing her grandmother through a window at the South Bay nursing home.
“We were uneasy about the whole situation,” Niebla told NBC 7. “We wanted more details as to what was going on.”
On May 15, Niebla says staff inside the home told her that Hernandez had tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Niebla and her family saw her that day through a call on Facetime.
“She was struggling to breathe. It was very very hard for us to see that,” said Niebla.
The very next day, Hernandez was dead.
“We are not going to get her back,” said Niebla. “We know that she is resting now and in a better place but we want people to know and to create awareness of what's going on inside these facilities.”
Niebla and her family are not alone.
Hernandez is one of 14 people who have died from COVID-19 at Windsor Gardens Convalescent Home. The facility has the second-highest total in San Diego County. As first reported by NBC 7 Investigates, 15 people have died at Victoria Post Acute Care in El Cajon whereas 12 have died at Avocado Post-Acute which is also located in East County.
But family members and experts all suspect the death toll and infection rate is much higher than what is reported.
Attorney Natalie Holm specializes in elder abuse cases. Holm says that COVID-19 has likely only exacerbated the issues that so many long-term care facilities grapple with even in non-pandemic times such as staffing shortages, and trying to keep profits up.
“There is an obvious need for more oversight and stricter requirements for staff inside these long-term care homes,” Holm said. “Basically. all of the underlying problems that skilled nursing facilities and residential care facilities were already experiencing, will only be made worse due to COVID-19.”
As for advice for families who have family members inside a skilled-nursing facility, Holm urges them to be active, and ask questions, while demanding that accommodations be made to ensure some level of access, even if that is only through a window, on a video-phone app, or through the diamond-shaped opening on a chain-link fence.
“Set up FaceTime visits with the caregiver, anything to maintain that contact,” said Holm. “Make sure you're still checking on them either by phone, by Facetime, I even have a client who visits his mom through a fence in the yard at her facility, and it's facilitated by the caregivers. Most importantly, don't be afraid to ask for their help.”
Another important facet in stopping the spread of coronavirus in nursing home facilities comes down to testing. San Diego County’s Public Health Department has said it is working on a plan to test all residents and staff at every nursing home facility, regardless of whether a resident or staff member has fallen ill with the virus.
To accomplish this goal, county health officials have said they will contract with additional health systems.
Advocates agree. Testing is vital.
“If there are testing shortages, we ought to be going into facilities where there are no known outbreaks to identify if there are, in fact, outbreaks. If there is a facility where we know there is an outbreak by all means we should be sending resources their way to make sure that residents are taken care of and that the residents who are infected are isolated,” said attorney Tony Chicotel with the California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform.
“But the key is if we don’t have enough tests to go around, it would be to get them into the facilities where we don’t know about outbreaks to make sure everything is fine and if not we can identify and divert resources to those communities.”
NBC 7 asked the county about the timeline for implementing this testing plan but officials did not respond.
In a statement, a representative from Windsor Gardens Convalescent Center told NBC 7 Investigates that the facility is following all state and federal guidelines. “Our clinicians are in daily collaboration with the facility’s Medical Director and members of the Utilization Review Committee regarding best practices. Our mission is to be hypervigilant in taking every recommended safety measure to minimize the continued spread of the virus to our residents and staff.”
NBC 7 Investigates also reached out to all county facilities which had at least one COVID-19 deaths listed on the state’s website. Administrators from some of those homes disputed the numbers. Others declined to comment. To see the statements from the skilled-nursing facilities that did respond, click here, or read below.