COVID-19 outbreak at Winslow nursing home claimed 40 lives
There was little to celebrate through the holidays at the Winslow Campus of Care skilled nursing home as COVID-19 tore through the facility, infecting 97 out of 102 residents and about 50 staff members, said Administrator Dan Belisle.
Many were sickened and 40 residents died from the virus, including 36 Native Americans, the majority of whom were Navajo, he said. “It’s the worst thing I’ve ever experienced in the 50 years I’ve been involved with this business, and I suspect it’s the worst thing that any of my staff has dealt with,” said Belisle. “It’s a shocker. I never want to experience anything like this again.”
Most of the residents who passed on were very elderly with multiple underlying conditions, he said, which required them to be in the long-term care facility. Belisle says he has “no clue” where the virus came from. “It’s a pandemic. It’s an airborne virus. Nobody I’ve talked to has any idea,” he said. “That’s just sort of the nature of the beast we’re dealing with.” Belisle confirmed that the WCC COVID-19 outbreak started on Nov. 30 with some initial positive tests, and the last positive test was identified over Christmas.
Initially, the outbreak occurred primarily in one wing of the building. “That area was shut down into an isolation unit,” he said. “As it progressed, we shut down the entire building. The isolations were done by wing and then residents were kept in their rooms.” When sick patients were discharged they were sent to the Little Colorado Medical Center, he said. “If they couldn’t care for the individual, as I understand it, or had to move them on to another location, there was a protocol that the state established in place and I assume they followed it,” said Belisle.
“This is very emotional for me and I’m sure everyone can relate to this,” said Navajo Nation Council Delegate Thomas Walker, who recently lost two close relatives to COVID-19. “Somebody brought the virus into the place,” he said. “It wasn’t the elders. There are no visitors. They’ve been on lockdown for months now. All of a sudden in November it shows up and gets worse and worse through the holidays.”
Walker said he was tipped off by constituents who informed him the WCC facility was “losing residents” and some staff were quitting, including someone in a “key leadership” position.
Belisle said staff have been tested bi-weekly since May and they have been following Centers for Disease Control and Medicare and Medicaid Services guidelines, and operating under the oversight of the Navajo County Health Department. “We’ve done all of the usual things that were available to us,” he said. The health department did not respond to a request for information from the Navajo Times.
Since March and prior to the November outbreak, Belisle said 56 employees had tested positive “outside of the facility” and were told to quarantine for 14 days. No employees have worked at WCC while they were sick, he said. While a number of staff did get very sick for about a week, Belisle said no staff members have died.
“We’ve had a number of staff lose loved ones, but to the best of my knowledge we’ve had no deaths with our staff,” said Belisle.
“The challenge we’re facing is we’ve just gone through the biggest holiday period of the year, and people gather,” he said. “I’m making an assumption that the first positive tests with our staff and some of the tests we saw in December are the results of people being unable to self-control the groups they participate with.”
Reached by Facebook messenger, former Director of Nursing Elizabeth McKey, who left WCC for a college teaching opportunity at the end of December, said the staff worked very hard to protect and care for residents since the COVID-19 pandemic began.
“It’s unfortunate that it happened, but the community spread is greater than 20 percent, putting the residents at greater risk,” she said. When asked if she knew how the virus got into the facility, McKey said there’s “no way to know.” “I think your story shouldn’t be about the virus getting in, but the fact that the staff was able to keep it out for greater than 10 months,” McKey told this reporter. “The fact that the Navajo Nation and Winslow were hit tremendously hard by the virus, and the facility kept it out for as long as they did.”
McKey said the facility followed all state, federal and CDC guidelines and worked with other community health entities since March to track the virus. Like McKey, Belisle said he believes “the story” is that they kept the virus out of the WCC campus for “10 straight months.” “Yes, the tragedy was that 40 people lost their lives from the virus, but what’s happened here is not unique to Northern Arizona,” he said.
Newly elected Winslow Mayor Roberta Wilcox Cano said the town was hit hard by the losses. “Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic our community has experienced many tragedies, including the devastating loss of over 30 elderly residents of Campus of Care,” she said. “The city of Winslow mourns, and as mayor I personally extend my sympathy, prayers, and condolences to all families who have had loved ones taken by this terrible virus.”
Cano encouraged everyone to continue following safety guidelines and consider getting vaccinated. “We are in a race against the spread of this virus,” she said. “We can win if we all do our part to fight it.”
Belisle said the Winslow Indian Health Care Center has stepped up to try to accelerate vaccinations for WCC residents in mid-December. “They assisted with the vaccination of 18 people,” he said. “We didn’t get everybody vaccinated.”
New WCC Director of Nursing Lori Padilla said the remaining unvaccinated residents will have the opportunity to get their vaccinations this week at Walgreen’s.
Belisle said he had “no idea” if the Navajo Nation included the Navajo WCC residents who passed in the daily death count. “That question actually came up in a community call and the folks representing the Navajo Nation couldn’t give a definitive answer, so I’m not sure where they’re counting or how they’re counting,” he said.
Neither Navajo Department of Health Director Jill Jim nor the president’s office responded to an inquiry regarding how the Nation is monitoring or tracking Navajo elders in nursing homes off-reservation.
“It’s heart wrenching,” said Walker. “At this point, 10 months into the pandemic, as a tribe we should be way better at protecting our families and our citizens, especially the most vulnerable ones and those in long-term care centers.” Walker said leaders are always saying, “Take care of our elders.” “I don’t know what the Navajo Nation can do, but it better do something,” said Walker. “We need to be the advocates. These are Navajo citizens. We need to let them know there’s a whole big Navajo Nation that can stand up for them and defend them.”
He said there used to be an ombudsman at NDOH who conducted oversight over congregate care facilities and could do spot checks.
“Residents are already vulnerable,” said Walker. “They’re even more vulnerable in that setting. This is very concerning to me and I think leadership should look into the matter. We can’t turn back the clock, but we have to be determined to do more to protect our elders and our vulnerable citizens.”
‘Semblance of normalcy’
Belisle said thankfully now things are looking up at WCC and the last “positive person” finished quarantine in mid-January. “We’re back to using the building,” he said. “We’ve got a population we’re being extremely careful with, but we’re out of the isolation mode. It doesn’t mean we’re opening to visitation or taking new admissions. All of that is yet to come.”
They’ve stopped testing residents, which they were doing three times a week during the outbreak, because no one in the building is positive, he said. “Navajo County has told us it’s inappropriate at this point,” said Belisle. “We’re testing all the staff on the same schedule we’ve been on for months – twice weekly. I’m following Navajo County and CMS guidelines. I’m not deviating from that.”
Belisle said they’ve opened up the isolation areas they created as a result of the outbreak. “Residents are all out of their rooms and in the common areas so I think they’re happy about that,” said head nurse Padilla.
“We’re back to some semblance of normalcy,” said Belisle. “For the first time in a month I’ve seen some people with smiles on their faces.”
Belisle says he hopes that lasts because there is no way to control what employees do once they leave work or guarantee they won’t be exposed to COVID-19 outside of the facility. “Can you control somebody leaving work and walking into Walmart or Safeway or a pharmacy and being exposed in one of those settings?” he asked. “If you can control that, you have the answer to the pandemic. It’s airborne. You just walk outside, you’re potentially at risk.”
Belisle said his biggest concern is the continuing spread of the virus in the community. “We’re a part of the community and if it spreads outside the doors,” he said, “there’s probably going to be a point in time where we’re going to deal with this again. That’s my worst dream.”
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