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Examining The COVID-19 Outbreak At Willow Springs

The exterior of the Willow Springs facility in Reno, Nevada.
Google Maps
Willow Springs is a residential treatment facility for children and teens in Reno, Nev. On Friday, April 3, the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health reported that there have been a total of 35 COVID-19 positive cases at the center.

Coverage of novel coronavirus is supported by the Mick Hitchcock, Ph.D., Project for Visualizing Science, a science reporting project from the Reynolds School of Journalism.

At a residential treatment facility in Reno, 24 youth and 11 staff have tested positive for COVID-19. One staff member has died. Willow Springs serves children and teens with behavioral and mental health needs. The Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health is currently investigating the outbreak.

Bennith Tinhorn lives  in Elko. Her 15-year-old son is a patient at Willow Springs. It’s a more than 100-bed residential treatment hospital for children and teens.

She said she had been having trouble reaching her son at the center during his stay and especially all last week.

“I called like 10 times every night — Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday — and then with no answer.” Tinhorn explained.

She said a staff member at Willow Springs called her on Friday to inform her that her son had tested positive for COVID-19. That was the first time she learned that he had been tested earlier in the week. Willow Springs did not inform her specifically how many at the facility tested positive.

She only learned about the 35 positive cases after a friend forwarded her a TV news report. She tried several times to reach her son on Friday night.

“So I finally got to talk to him Friday night and he tells me, ‘Oh yeah, mom, I had a fever and my throat hurts. They put us in a separate unit.’ ” Tinhorn explained. “He said, 'there's nine kids in just our unit and one staff member died.' And I was like, what?”

That staff member was the second COVID-19-related death in Washoe County. She was in her 30s and had underlying health conditions. Tinhorn said she’s worried about her son, but since she has had open heart surgery and other medical issues, she’s confused about what to do.

“I want to bring him home,” Tinhorn said. “I want to go pick him up, but I don't know how or where I would put him at.”

Tinhorn said with the high number of cases at Willow Springs, she’d like to remove her son from the center. She’s seeking medical advice from providers in Elko to find the safest options for her and her community.

KUNR reached out to the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health, or DPBH, for comment about this story. In an email, DPBH indicated the agency is currently investigating the outbreak at Willow Springs.

A spokesperson for the agency said they are working closely with the facility to ensure the implementation of state and federal recommended infection control measures. That includes the testing of all staff and children at the facility.

In addition to Tinhorn’s concerns, several staff members of Willow Springs voiced their own personal experiences about the recent spread of COVID-19 at the facility. They’ve requested that their names not be used because they fear job loss or retaliation.

One staff member said she worked her last shift on Friday evening after learning about the 35 positive cases. She helped supervise the kids and kept them on a schedule. She said her family was worried about her after news broke about the cases.

“They know that I work with kids who are a sensitive population and that it's important to me to make sure that they don't feel like I've abandoned them,” the employee said. “So my husband wanted me to quit as soon as he knew about the COVID cases at work. He wanted me to quit and I said, 'I don't feel I can do that.' ”

Her last night working at the center ended up being that evening. She said she didn’t get an adequate mask that night to protect herself while working in a unit with positive COVID-19 cases. When she asked for an adequate face mask, she said she was escorted off the property by management. 

“I said, 'if I don't get a mask, I can't go work that unit,' ” she said. “And so she walked me out of the building.”

She lives outside of Washoe County, but is currently self-quarantining at a hotel in Reno to protect her family. Since she was in that unit with sick kids, she went for a COVID-19 test and is awaiting results. She said she still has concerns about the spread of COVID-19 at Willow Springs.

“I know that two staff members Friday night were working that had tested positive for COVID and they were working on the floor,” the employee said. “Management knew that they were positive for COVID and they had them working on the floor with positive and not positive COVID cases.”

And that’s not all, she said.

“I know for a fact, they have been offering incentives to employees to come in when they know that they're COVID positive but asymptomatic,” she said.

In an email, the CEO of Willow Springs Andy Herod said the facility is offering incentives to employees who are willing to work since many staff members are refusing to come in.

A spokesperson for Willow Springs could not confirm if the center is requiring employees to self-isolate for 14 days prior to returning to work.

Another staff member who spoke to KUNR works with the kids at Willow Springs, helping them when needed, and reporting back to medical staff.

She said she was tested at the facility last week for COVID-19, but before she received her results, she was asked to come into work.

“[It] made me feel scared and confused and not know what to do. Like they didn't care about my safety or any of the other employees' safety.”

She said she too has heard that other employees who have tested positive are being offered extra pay for going back to work. But for her, she’s worried about being exposed to the virus and then potentially spreading it to family and the community. That’s why she’s not ready to return.

“I've just been told that if I do not go back to work, I will be basically abandoning my job," she explained.

She said she’s asked management at Willow Springs if she’ll be allowed to use paid time-off for those missed shifts. She said it’s unclear at this time if she can do that or if she might lose her job. She said she’s fearful about speaking out, but it’s not just the staff she’s worried about.

“For the kids, for the kids,” the employee explained, “I'll do it for the kids, the staff safety and for the family members.”

In an email, Willow Springs spokesperson said the center is taking various precautions and following federal and state recommendations. Some of those precautions include ending all patient visitations at this time, screening staff daily, and taking the temperature of all patients twice daily.

Editor’s note:

This story aired before KUNR received additional information from the Washoe County Health District regarding recommendations for health care workers. In an email to KUNR, the district shared the Interim Guidelines for Discontinuation of In-Home Isolation and Transmission- Based Precautions among Hospitalized Patients with COVID-19 from the Nevada Division of Public and Behavioral Health. These recommendations are specifically for health care providers, medical facilities and laboratories.

Among several recommendations, the guidelines state: “Individuals with laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 who have not had any symptoms may discontinue home isolation when at least 7 days have passed since the date of their first positive COVID-19 diagnostic test and have had no subsequent illness.”

The CEO of Willow Springs Andy Herod told KUNR by email that the center is following guidelines from health officials for staff members who have tested positive to COVID-19.

Update Regarding Willow Springs Center
After this story was published to KUNR.org, the Willow Springs Center sent KUNR the following statement by email at 5:43 p.m. PT on April 6, 2020.

Consistent with CDC guidelines, employees who have tested positive but who are asymptomatic are permitted to return to work. Employees who have been tested but are awaiting their results can also report to work assuming they are asymptomatic. Also consistent with CDC guidelines, Willow Springs Center is taking temperatures on all staff prior to their shift beginning. If they are symptomatic, the employee is instructed to return home and contact their PCP. Masks are worn for protection; everyone is washing hands often; visitation has been suspended; and additional cleaning is being done. Staff members may take PTO if they desire time off, and employees who meet certain medical criteria can apply for Extended Leave Benefits, if needed. We are heartened to report that our patients and staff members – including those who tested positive for COVID-19 – are doing well. We are working closely with, and taking direction from, the State Department of Health and Human Services and other appropriate oversight agencies. We are doing everything we can to provide a safe environment for the healing of all and for the continued mental health treatments of the residents within our care.

The following is a press release from the Nevada Department of Health and Human Services sent to media on April 3, 2020 to first announce the outbreak of COVID-19 at the Willow Springs Center.

The Division is coordinating with the Washoe County Health District and Willow Springs to ensure the health and safety of all youth and staff at the facility. Measures are in place to prevent further exposure. Willow Springs Center CEO Andrew Herod said, “The health and wellness of our patients and staff is of utmost importance and we are taking this matter seriously and cooperating with the State during their review of our facility. “We have regular monitoring in place and continue to educate our patients about self-precautions. The team is in full cooperation with the State and Health Department, and we will take further steps if necessary to protect everyone’s wellbeing.”

The image included in this story is a screenshot from Google Maps. View this map.

Anh Gray is a former contributing editor at KUNR Public Radio.
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