Examining The Deadly COVID-19 Outbreak At Arbors Memory Care In Sparks

Jun 18, 2020

Arbors Memory Care is an assisted living center in Sparks for seniors with Alzheimer's or dementia. In the span of about a month, 14 residents at the facility died from COVID-19. KUNR’s Anh Gray and Lucia Starbuck discuss what led to this outbreak.

Anh Gray: You've been covering a COVID-19 outbreak at a state-licensed care facility for our media partner This Is Reno. Can you take me to the beginning? What happened at Arbors Memory Care?

Lucia Starbuck: Arbors Memory Care said their first resident tested positive for COVID-19 on May 12. Since then, 33 residents and six staff members have tested positive, and 14 residents have passed away — that's a third of their residents. The Nevada Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) began an investigation on May 21. That's what DHHS Public Information Officer Shannon Litz told me. She explained in an email why an outbreak occurred.

"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," Litz wrote in an email.

Starbuck: Despite the investigation, a few staff members at Arbors Memory Care that I spoke to said they're concerned that's not enough.

Gray: You've spoken with staff members from the facility. What have you learned?

Starbuck: In my reporting over the last few weeks, I've learned from staff, who wished to remain anonymous, that initially there wasn't adequate personal protective equipment (PPE). We've since learned that many care facilities and other health care providers struggled to get supplies during the early stages of the pandemic as well. This is one of the challenges with reporting at the moment. Without access to care facilities, I can't independently verify some of the claims, but it seems consistent with what we've learned while reporting on outbreaks during the pandemic.

Gray: What are some other concerns that you're hearing about?

Starbuck: What I've learned from reporting at Arbors Memory Care, and other care facilities that have had outbreaks, is this struggle [to get PPE]. Caregivers and health care workers are being exposed at work, and then they have a difficult decision to make: Do I return to work and put myself at risk? Management is also in a tough spot because they need to maintain a sufficient amount of staffing to care for people. At Arbors Memory Care, six staff members have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the state's dashboard.

Gray: It seems staffing has been an ongoing issue for some care facilities, as some employees get ill, and some choose not to return out of concerns for their own health. What is the staffing situation at Arbors Memory Care?

Starbuck: Staff members I've spoken to have told me there were about 30 caregivers working directly with about 50 residents. Now, there are about 10 caregivers for the 30 residents remaining in the facility. In mid-May, Arbors Memory Care released a statement that they had stable staffing, but since February, they've made 13 Facebook posts about job opportunities, including five just last month. Litz ,with the health department, told me the facility was going to receive volunteer help from Gov. Steve Sisolak's Battleborn Medical Corps. However, the employee told me only one volunteer was sent to help. Litz and Arbors Memory Care did not answer how many volunteers were sent. I asked Sisolak at his press conference on June 15, and he told me that the facility only requested one volunteer.

Gray: What is being done to protect these vulnerable populations?

Starbuck: I've been going back and forth with the state on this. Litz tells me Arbors Memory Care has been sent PPE, and staff and residents are being tested for COVID-19. At Arbors Memory Care residents have also been sorted into two separate areas of the facility, grouped by who has tested positive and who has not. I asked Sisolak if he felt vulnerable populations are being protected because that was one of the benchmarks he said Nevada must meet to continue reopening.

"We're doing everything we can to protect them as much as humanly possible. Unfortunately, there is no absolute surefire way. We've protected them in terms of providing proper PPE, staff and residents are getting tested, we've limited visitation, and doing what we can to protect all of those folks that are living in those facilities," Sisolak said on June 15.

Gray: Based on interviews that I've done with various health experts, and advocates for care facilities, congregate settings are at higher risk for outbreaks because of the close living environment with older adults who have health vulnerabilities. What else have you learned about the concerns at these settings statewide?

Starbuck: The director of DHHS, Richard Whitley, said there are three main reasons for why outbreaks are occurring at care facilities, including inappropriate use of PPE, breaches in isolation of residents who are infected with the virus and hand-washing.

"I mean, each facility is required to have its own infection control plan, and then follow it. So, when they don't follow it, that's when we see these, sort of, issues that I identified," Whitley said during a Legislative Committee on Health Care on May 20.

Starbuck: In Washoe County, deaths amongst residents of care facilities account for over half of COVID-19-related deaths in the county.

Lucia Starbuck is a corps member with Report for America, an initiative of the GroundTruth Project.

This story was produced in partnership with This Is Reno.