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Sun Investigation

Deaths of at least 32 Colorado nursing home, senior living center residents linked to coronavirus

Six people have died of COVID-19 complications at Centennial Healthcare Center in Greeley alone. Four others from one Littleton assisted-living center, Libby Bortz, also have died.

Emergency personnel from South Metro Fire Rescue transfer a patient into an ambulance at Libby Bortz Assisted Living Center in Littleton on Friday, April 3, 2020. South Metro ambulance crews now wear personal protective equipment to every call as a precaution against the coronavirus, a spokeswoman said. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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The deaths of at least 32 residents of nursing homes and senior living centers in Colorado have been linked to the new coronavirus, including six fatalities at one Greeley facility and four at one in Littleton, The Colorado Sun has learned. 

That is nearly one-third of all coronavirus-related deaths in Colorado, where at least 112 people had died in the pandemic through Friday. 

COVID-19 IN COLORADO

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  • STORYColorado nursing homes with the most coronavirus deaths were cited for poor infection control

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At Centennial Healthcare Center in Greeley, six residents have died, a spokeswoman said. Two people from the facility are hospitalized and 15 others who are sick are being cared for at the center. 

Other residents who have come into contact with sick people at the Weld County center are isolated to prevent further spread of the virus. “We are doing everything in our power to protect our residents and staff,” said Annaliese Impink, a senior vice president of SavaSeniorCare, the operator of at least 24 centers in Colorado. She said 23 residents at the Greeley center have tested positive for the virus.

In Littleton, four residents of Libby Bortz Assisted Living have died because of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the virus, according to the Tri-County Health Department, which includes Arapahoe, Adams and Douglas counties. 

The department said eight residents of senior-living facilities in the three counties have died due to the coronavirus. Those include two deaths from Inglenook in Brighton and one each from RiverPointe Senior Living in Littleton and Abundant Blessings in Centennial. 

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment has been slow to release information about outbreaks at senior living centers in the state, and only began providing a list on March 28, after The Denver Post filed an open records request. The state has not said how many deaths from COVID-19 have occurred among residents of those facilities, let alone how many residents and staff are infected.

There had been at least 112 confirmed coronavirus deaths in Colorado through Friday afternoon, meaning that the senior care facility deaths make up a significant portion — about 29% — of those fatalities. Eighty-nine of the deaths in Colorado are among people 70 and older.

Nursing homes across the nation have been hard hit by the virus. The initial epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak was a nursing home near Seattle where 37 residents died, and recent outbreaks have been reported in Tennessee, New Jersey, Ohio, West Virginia and Maryland. 

Though the federal government has not announced nationwide numbers, The Associated Press reported that deaths of nursing home residents across the country have reached at least 450. As of Friday afternoon, there had been about 5,800 deaths total in the United States, according to the COVID Tracking Project.

In Colorado, state officials have said there are nursing homes with cases of coronavirus in these counties: Adams, Arapahoe, Boulder, Chaffee, Denver, El Paso, Jefferson, Larimer, Routt and Weld. 

The doors at Frasier Meadows, a campus of senior apartments and skilled nursing care in Boulder, are closed to visitors because of fears about the coronavirus. Three cases of the illness have been confirmed there. Two of the patients are hospitalized and one is recovering at home. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)

“We are being as transparent as we possibly can be,” Mike Willis, director of the Colorado Office of Emergency Management, said during a call with reporters last week. “There are locations that are under investigation. It is important to complete those investigations so we can release comprehensive and factual information and not feed rumors and fear.”

The Sun reached out to local public health officials and the facilities to compile a list of fatalities and infections that wasn’t available from the state. Some of them agreed to release information, while others refused. 

Gov. Jared Polis on Friday said he wasn’t surprised by the number of deaths tracked by The Sun given the insidiousness of the virus, and called them “really tragic” and “painful news.” He said he has been worried about senior care centers from the start of Colorado’s outbreak, which is why one of his first executive actions to slow the spread of the coronavirus was to limit visitation at those facilities.

Asked whether the information about positive cases and fatalities at senior care centers should be more readily available from state and local health departments, Polis said yes. “I’m glad that you were able to get that,” he said of The Sun’s reporting. “We’ll try to get it to you quicker in the future. I’m happy that you were able to get that information and get it out there.”

But operators of senior care complexes, including some responsible for multiple facilities in the state, worry that releasing information about infection rates could create panic. 

“I would not feel comfortable going into the number of cases we have,” said Jay Moskowitz, the CEO of Vivage, a Denver-based senior care company that has at least three affected Colorado facilities — Fairacres Manor in Greeley, Amberwood Court Rehabilitation and Care Community in Denver and Denver North Care Center. “I think that’s something that starts hysteria in the community and it’s not something that I prefer doing. We will definitely tell you that we have cases and we’ve been working both with the hospital and the health department on a daily basis.” 

The Denver Department of Public Health and Environment says two people have died because of coronavirus at Amberwood Court Rehab while one resident from Denver North Care Center has died because of the disease. Those were among seven deaths at six senior living centers in Denver County, according to the health department. 

Colorado Gov. Jared Polis speaks to CBS4’s Shaun Boyd on April 1, 2020. “I’m happy that you were able to get that information and get it out there,” he said of The Colorado Sun’s reporting on deaths at senior care centers in the state. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)

Residents of Jewell Care Center, Sunrise Cherry Creek, the Center at Lowry and the Windsor Gardens also have died. Jewell Care Center is run by SavaSeniorCare.

Four of those centers were not on a state health department list of senior living facilities with confirmed cases of COVID-19 that was emailed to The Sun on Thursday night. 

The facilities say they are trying their best to keep up and prevent further spread but acknowledge that the situation is extremely difficult. Moskowitz said he has been 100% transparent with patients and their families and that Vivage has taken a host of precautions to keep the virus from spreading further. He also said that his staff have been working hard to keep residents occupied and help them stay in touch with family.

Vivage initially told The Sun it would provide information about infections and whether there had been any deaths at its facilities, but then refused. 

“The story becomes about the … residents that have been exposed and died,” Moskowitz said. “That’s not the story. The story is what the communities are doing to protect the residents.”

The Weld County Department of Public Health and Environment declined to release information about Fairacres in Greeley, saying the investigation into the virus’ spread there is still ongoing.

However, the director of Weld County’s health department told 9News that at least nine deaths in the county are tied to nursing homes and that around seven facilities have had at least one case of COVID-19. The list the state health department provided to The Sun included only two facilities with outbreaks in Weld County — Centennial Healthcare Center and Fairacres Manor.

State epidemiologists who specialize in disease control and prevention are investigating outbreaks at at least 20 senior living centers across Colorado. CDPHE has also been issuing instructions to the facilities on how to isolate residents, protect staff and disinfect their buildings. 

State inspectors have been doing “regular remote check-ins” of nursing home facilities and have prioritized complaints with “allegations of immediate jeopardy and infection control concerns,” the department said in an emailed statement to The Sun. 

“This is a new era for us, and for nursing homes, so it’s still a little early to know if facilities are transitioning to the new guidance smoothly,” the department wrote.

Deaths in facilities from Loveland to Montrose

There have been at least five deaths at two senior care centers in Colorado Springs, which has the most deaths of any Colorado county.

The Laurel Manor Care Center has had three resident die of coronavirus, according to El Paso County Public Health. A total of 10 residents and two staff members have tested positive for the disease. 

“Our hearts also go out to our residents and employees during this difficult time,” David Burch, a spokesman for Volunteers of America, which runs Laurel Manor, said in a written statement.

MorningStar at Mountain Shadows in Colorado Springs has seen two deaths, according to a facility spokeswoman. The county health department, however, said three of MorningStar’s residents had died. A dozen residents and three staff members there have tested positive. 

“We grieve alongside those families,” Lorna Lee, a MorningStar spokeswoman, said in a statement.  

Lee declined an interview request but said in an email that the infected residents are in full isolation and that the staff members who have tested positive are recovering at their homes. 

MORE: How a bridge club led a Colorado county to have one of the nation’s highest coronavirus death rates

The North Shore Health & Rehab Facility in Loveland has logged three deaths attributed to coronavirus, according to the Larimer County Department of Health and Environment

Only one of the people who died tested positive for the disease. The two others, who died in early March, were not tested but are considered epidemiologically confirmed coronavirus deaths because they were tied to other cases at the facility, said Katie O’Donnell, a spokeswoman for the Larimer County Department of Health and Environment

“Basically the state went back and decided that those deaths couldn’t be ruled out as not having COVID-19,” O’Donnell said. “That happened long past when those individuals died so we could not go back and test.”

O’Donnell said eight residents and two staff members at North Shore have tested positive for coronavirus.

A message left for Columbine Health Systems, which runs North Shore, was not returned Friday.  But in a statement posted on the company’s Facebook page its owner and operator, Bob Wilson, said “were an in challenging times, unprecedented in my 50-year history.”

Streets near Frasier Meadows, left, a campus of senior apartments and skilled nursing care in Boulder, are marked for the safety of older residents in the neighborhood. The doors at the complex are closed to visitors because of fears about the coronavirus. Three cases of the illness have been confirmed there. Two of the patients are hospitalized and one is recovering at home. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)

At SavaSeniorCare’s San Juan Living Center in Montrose, two residents died this week from coronavirus, Impink said. The facility is not listed by CDPHE as being among the outbreak sites.

In Salida, the Columbine Manor Care Center has seen one resident die from coronavirus, according Andrea Carlstrom, director of Chaffee County Public and Environmental Health.

The facility says a total of nine residents have tested positive for the illness, as have five staff members. More tests are pending. 

Columbine Manor Care’s Executive Director Joshua Finger did not return a message seeking comment. But in a statement posted to the facility’s website, he said “we stay in consistent communication with families and always welcome their questions and contact.” Columbine is owned by Life Care Centers of America, which also owns the Life Care Center of Kirkland — the Seattle-area facility where at least 37 residents died — as well as multiple centers in Colorado. 

Other affected facilities

There are a number of other facilities in Colorado where residents have tested positive but there have not been fatalities. 

Brookdale North Loveland, another Larimer County facility, has one resident who has tested positive, according to the county’s public health department.

Jefferson County Public Health says there are two outbreaks in its jurisdiction: One at Mapleton Care Center in Lakewood and another at Granville Assisted Living Center in Lakewood. 

At Mapleton, there are four confirmed cases, the health department says. There is just one confirmed case at Granville. 

Frasier Meadows in Boulder has reported three cases on its campus. “We have dealt with it as best we can,” said Tim Johnson, CEO of the facility, in a video message.

“As Frasier staff has become aware of positive test results, we want to assure you that we are doing our very best to trace each person’s contacts during what we believe would have been the incubation time — residents, family members, community members, caregivers, and associated touch points,” the center said in a statement posted on its website.  “As you can probably imagine, this is a tedious and challenging process, but we take this responsibility very seriously and understand the consequences of not doing it well.” 

Casey’s Pond, a senior living facility in Steamboat Springs, is another site with a coronavirus outbreak. No one from the Routt County center has died, but four residents and three staff members have tested positive for COVID-19. There are more tests that are either pending or that returned inconclusive results. 

The center’s sister center, Someren Glen Senior Living Facility in Centennial, says three residents and one staff member have tested positive for coronavirus. Additional tests were pending. A post on Someren Glen’s website says family members will be contacted if their loved one is suspected or diagnosed with COVID-19.

Only one of the seven infected residents at the two facilities has been hospitalized, while the others are in isolation in the centers. “We have been told for the last 10 days both by the state government and the federal government that we need to be prepared to deal with residents with non-life-threatening symptoms,” said Pam Sullivan, vice president of communications for Christian Living Communities, which has nine facilities in Colorado, including Casey’s Pond and Someren Glen. 

And it’s up to the patient’s doctor or the local health department — not the senior living center — whether a resident is tested for the new coronavirus, Sullivan said. 

In Routt County, public health officials tested 118 people who live or work at Casey’s Pond, which provides a range of services including memory-care living and assisted living. Of the seven people who were positive for COVID-19, some are asymptomatic, Sullivan said. 

Senior living communities do not have negative-pressure rooms like those in hospitals that prevent air from flowing out. But residents with positive tests or with symptoms or known exposure are kept in isolation, Sullivan said. Staff who enter the rooms are in full personal protective equipment, and visits with family members have gone online instead of in person, she said. 

There have been visitor restrictions at all senior living centers in the state since March 12, a stipulation in one of the governor’s first executive orders related to the outbreak. Communal dining or other group activities were eliminated shortly thereafter. Centers are delivering meals to residents’ rooms or apartments. 

Staff are working hard to ease loneliness, Sullivan said. “There are a lot of creative things going on,” she said.

Residents are FaceTiming with relatives and friends, and some family members have stood outside residents’ open windows, several feet away, to say “hi.” They’re taking walks outside, while wearing masks. At Casey’s Pond in Steamboat, local favorite Blue Sage Pizza brought pies for the residents, and the Steamboat Youth Orchestra serenaded them outside their open windows.

Update: Libby Bortz Assisted Living, which is owned by South Metro Housing Options, says three of its residents, not four, have died because of COVID-19. The state health department has attributed the fourth death to the disease despite that no test for the coronavirus was done on the patient. The state is counting deaths that are epidemiologically linked to the virus, even when there was not a positive test.

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