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Latest COVID surge in care center leaves at least 10 dead

by WILL LANGHORNE
The Western News | September 14, 2021 7:00 AM

At least 10 Libby Care Center residents died due to complications related to COVID-19 after the coronavirus spread through the local nursing home last month.

One resident died during the week ending Aug. 29, five died during the week prior and four during the week ending Aug. 15, according to the latest data from the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid (CMS). The figures bring the total number of COVID-19 related deaths at the care center to 14.

Executives with Cascadia Healthcare, the nursing home’s parent company, were not available for multiple phone call requests for comment on the latest deaths. During an Aug. 14 interview, Steve LaForte, director of corporate affairs and general counsel at Cascadia, said a staff member who tested positive for the virus likely set off the outbreak at the center in late July. At the time of the interview, there were 65 residents at the facility.

Karen Wickersham, who lost her uncle Earl Stanley to COVID-19 at the center, said she had heard from staff that an unvaccinated employee had brought the virus into the nursing home. LaForte said he couldn’t verify if the employee was vaccinated or not since Cascadia keeps data on staff vaccination history in a blind database.

A little less than 50 percent of employees and 83.5 percent of residents at the care center were vaccinated as of Aug. 14, according to LaForte. Nationally, 62.7 percent of staff members and 83.9 percent of residents were vaccinated at nursing homes as of the week ending in Aug. 29.

Stanley’s family members expressed outrage at the outbreak, saying it could have been prevented if more staff members had received vaccines.

“We [mask up and get vaccines] not just for our own safety, but to protect others,” said Wickersham. “The fact that Earl got it because someone chose not to get vaccinated is beyond infuriating and speaks loud and clear of that caregiver’s selfishness.”

Relatives of Rolf Zillmer, an 89-year-old resident who died of COVID-19 complications during the outbreak, were less critical, noting that other nursing homes had failed to stop the spread of the virus.

“At his age, it’s not surprising to see it happen,” said Deborah Ellis, Zillmer’s niece.

During Zillmer’s stay at the facility, Ellis said he received wonderful care from staff members. While she acknowledged some employees were unvaccinated, she was unsure if having a higher vaccination rate among staff members would have saved her uncle.

Sara Whitehouse, a resident at the facility who survived a bout with COVID-19 last year, said she saw little success in urging unvaccinated staff members to get shots.

“I’ve been trying to talk people into getting [a vaccine]. It isn’t easy,” she said.

At least one care center staff member has taken to social media, calling vaccines ineffective.

“You’re an idiot,” wrote Sandra Dubler Hendricks, a certified nursing assistant at the facility, in response to a Facebook comment from a man who claimed to have had his hip replacement surgery canceled due to unvaccinated COVID-19 patients taking up beds at a hospital. “I work at the nursing home and about half of our residents got [COVID-19] and most of them except maybe one or two were fully vaccinated. We lost about a dozen residents and all but one was fully vaccinated. Stop being ignorant! It’s not the unvaccinated that is the problem!”

Hendrick’s personal Facebook page is full of posts questioning the safety of the vaccine, at times attributing the vaccine to deaths and the continued spread of the coronavirus. Medical experts and public health officials have repeatedly stressed that coronavirus vaccinations are safe and effective. Last month, the FDA granted full approval to the Pfizer vaccine.

Hospitals across the country have reported bed shortages due a spike in coronavirus infections this summer. Idaho Gov. Brad Little announced that only four out of nearly 400 intensive care unit beds in the state were available as of Aug. 31. In Oregon, only 50 of the state’s 638 ICU beds were open as of earlier this month, according to The New York Times.

Data gathered by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services showed that just over 81 percent of ICU beds at reporting U.S. hospitals were in use as of Sept. 10. The department stated that roughly 30 percent of ICU beds at hospitals that offered numbers were in use by COVID-19 patients.

Dubler Hendricks said she stood by her views during a Sept. 10 interview.

In the midst of the outbreak, she was assigned to the care center’s COVID-19 unit where she worked with a few of the residents who died from the virus. She noted that many of the infected residents displayed similar symptoms to the ones she had experienced after contracting the virus.

“They wouldn’t eat much, they stayed in bed,” she said.

Last month, President Joe Biden announced an emergency regulation requiring nursing homes to mandate vaccines among staff members to receive funding from the Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS). Federal officials expanded the requirement to include all CMS certified facilities — such as hospitals, dialysis facilities and ambulatory surgical centers — in an announcement on Sept. 9. CMS staff plan to issue an interim final rule with a comment period in October, according to a statement from the agency.

Dubler Hendricks said she knew of the emergency regulation but hadn’t heard if Cascadia executives were planning to require employees to get vaccinated. She said she would not take a vaccine if officials were to request it.

In August, LaForte said Cascadia could not require employees to get vaccinated because of a new state law designed to prevent discrimination based on vaccine status. The law, however, would permit long-term care facilities to mandate employee vaccinations if required by federal regulations.

In hopes of increasing the number of vaccinated staff members in Cascadia facilities, LaForte said last month that executives were strongly encouraging employees to get their doses and had organized incentives and educational programs. The Libby Care Center continues to follow guidelines issued by CMS to mitigate the spread of the virus among staff and residents.

By Aug. 25 the worst of the outbreak seemed to have passed, according to Whitehouse.

While the center was no longer seeing positive test results, she said the outbreak had proved much more devastating than a previous one that had claimed the life of her former roommate last year.

“It was really bad the second round,” she said. “It spread really fast.”