Nursing home grappling with coronavirus outbreak struggles for answers

The virus has killed at least 13 at the facility in Washington state.

ByStacy Chen
March 7, 2020, 7:38 PM

At least 70 staffers at the nursing facility in Washington state that's become the epicenter of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak have shown symptoms and been asked to stay home.

"We cannot make any promises that further exposure in the center is not happening," Tim Killian, a spokesperson for Life Care Center, said at a press conference on Saturday.

Since the first COVID-19 case was reported at the facility on Feb. 19, 26 Life Care residents have died, with at least half of those attributable to the virus. In Washington state, 16 total people have died because of the virus, by far the most of any state in the U.S., where it's killed 19.

Life Care, in Kirkland, Washington, has received 45 test kits and asked for more. More than 60 residents are still living there.

Killian called the facility's staffers "heroes," adding, "This is a larger issue than just our facility."

PHOTO: Pat Herrick holding up a picture of her mother after she passed in Kirkland, Washington.
Pat Herrick holding up a picture of her mother after she passed in Kirkland, Washington.
ABC News

That's exactly why many families still grieving lost loved ones wanted to share their stories with ABC News. Many said the situation at Life Care shined a light on a broken system, where communication with residents proved difficult and straight answers from the facility were difficult to come by.

Pat Herrick said when she tried to reach her 81-year-old mother, Elaine Herrick, at Life Care, she was told a nurse had just put her mother to bed.

Pat Herrick said she didn't think too much of it, felt at ease, then went to sleep on Wednesday.

PHOTO: Colleen Mallory with her mother and siblings at Life Care Center, Kirkland, Washington.
Colleen Mallory with her mother and siblings at Life Care Center, Kirkland, Washington.
Colleen Mallory

But she awoke to a call at 3:30 a.m. on Thursday in which she said a nurse told her that her mother had just died after being rushed to an emergency room.

"I was so shocked because she's been in better health" recently, Pat Herrick told ABC News.

Seven hours after learning her mother had died, she said she received a phone call from a Life Care Center representative based in Tennessee.

"She said, 'I just want to check in with you and let you know that your mother's doing fine, that she doesn't have a temperature,'" Pat said, recounting the conversation.

"That's b-------," she said she replied. "My mom died at 3:30 this morning."

Her mother's cause of death has yet to be verified, but Pat Herrick is pleading for her mother's body to be tested for coronavirus. Her mother, she continued, had been confined to a room with two roommates, one of whom had been coughing for days.

PHOTO: Jerry Wall with his daughter Jody Connolly in Washington.
Jerry Wall with his daughter Jody Connolly in Washington.
Kevin Connolly

In an earlier statement to ABC News, Life Care said employees were "making personal, one-on-one telephone calls with family members to share information about loved ones and respond to questions. Communication is vital in the caregiving process and for keeping families abreast of developments in dealing with the coronavirus."

Kevin Connolly, whose father-in-law, Jerry Wall, is a resident at Life Care, organized a press conference with other residents' families on Thursday, pleading for answers.

He said after he received conflicting information about whether his father-in-law fits the requirements to get tested for the virus, he called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and was told he'd receive a response in seven to 10 business days.

Connolly said he's been frustrated with both the facility's response to the coronavirus and its lack of passing along critical information.

A three-person CDC team had been on-site "intermittently" during the week, but they weren't made available to family members for questions. Connolly said the CDC's overall response there "wholly inadequate and laughable."

Connolly said that even when information does trickle out, he's not sure how much he can trust it.

"We're told they're quarantined, and then we're told it's not actually quarantine. They're just confined to their beds," Connolly said. "Then we were told that actually they're free to get up and move."

Colleen Mallory, whose 89-year-old mother lives at Life Care, said she was surprised she was allowed to visit after the facility had announced no more visitors would be allowed.

Inside, she described the scene as "eerie," with the majority of the nursing home's doors closed with caution tape. Mallory said she saw very few staffers and noticed that her mother's roommate, who had been "sick with pneumonia," was no longer there.

Vice President Mike Pence visited Tacoma, Washington, on Thursday to meet with local officials and said they are cooperating with the state of Washington to engage "a very fulsome investigation," and promised the government is working on getting everyone tested at Life Care. More test kits are scheduled to arrive next week.

"We've had some challenges with Life Care, and I'm starting to lose my patience," King County Executive Dow Constantine said at a news conference on Friday.

PHOTO: Vanessa Phelps and her mother at Life Care Center, Kirkland, Washington.
Vanessa Phelps and her mother at Life Care Center, Kirkland, Washington.
Vanessa Phelps

Thirty U.S. Public Health Service officials were scheduled to arrive over the weekend to assist with staff, he added.

Family members of Life Care residents said they still don't have much confidence in that response plan.

"My fear is that in a week, we will be arranging a funeral," said Connolly, who told ABC News he's considering checking his father-in-law out of the facility.

Susan Hailey, 76, a Life Care resident, told ABC News she was brought to the hospital to get tested for both the flu and coronavirus two nights ago. While her results are pending, she was sent back to Life Care and is now confined to her room.

"Do I want to leave? Yes. Absolutely yes," Hailey said. "It's not that the people aren't nice, it's that I don't like being trapped, and I am."

ABC News' Robert Zepeda, Kaylee Hartung and Desiree Adib contributed to this report.

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