SHREVEPORT, La. (KSLA) — From a second-floor window at Highland Place Rehab & Nursing Center, a staff member wearing a white face mask pushes a paper sign through the closed plastic blinds. The note written in yellow highlighter reads “We love our residents.” A hastily scribbled message clearly meant to be seen by the news reporter filming on the sidewalk below.
Located near downtown Shreveport, Highland has the lamentable distinction of having the highest number of residents testing positive for COVID-19 in Louisiana — 125, according to the latest data released by the state health department.
“They’re our second family. We love them, and they love us,” said Pat, an employee at Highland who agreed to sit down and speak with KSLA Chief Investigative Reporter Stacey Cameron about the rapid spread of the disease at the nursing home as long as her real name was not used and her voice and silhouette were altered for television.
“Many of the residents are sick and stable; but all of a sudden, they go into respiratory distress and have to be rushed to the hospital immediately,” Pat said. “And so, it’s emotionally hard on us. We cry just like family does; it’s a piece of us that leaves when they leave. It’s emotionally traumatic for us.”
At the outset of the pandemic, the Louisiana Department of Health kept the public well informed, reporting the specific number of coronavirus cases at nursing homes throughout the state. But when long-term care facilities became hotspots of infection, LDH officials quickly reversed course and stopped releasing the information, claiming it was exempt from disclosure because the data were subject to a public health investigation.
Finally, on May 18, following repeated pressure from the media and word that federal regulators soon would release the information on a national scale, LDH released a statewide analysis of COVID-19 infections in Louisiana nursing homes.
Right now, according to the latest LDH data, nursing home residents in this part of the state represent more than 20% of all reported coronavirus cases, with 26 facilities reporting at least one resident testing positive with the disease.
In addition to Highland, several nursing homes in Northwest Louisiana became clusters of infection. According to the latest LDH analysis, some of the other nursing homes in our area battling outbreaks of COVID-19 include Roseview Nursing & Rehabilitation Center (71 cases), Booker T. Washington Skilled Nursing & Rehabilitation (82 cases), Garden Park Nursing & Rehabilitation Center (71 cases), Willow Ridge Nursing and Rehabilitation Center (65 cases), Natchitoches Nursing and Rehabilitation Center (49 cases), Harmony House Nursing and Rehabilitation Center (38 cases), The Bradford Skilled Nursing & Rehabilitation (37 cases); Cypress Point Nursing & Rehabilitation Center (31 cases) and Vivian Healthcare Center (28 cases).
“When you start seeing these outrageous numbers, you have to suspect a lot of the most important protections are going out the window,” said Rick Console, an attorney specializing in negligence litigation against nursing homes.
Pat feels the rapid spread of COVID-19 inside Highland was preventable.
Pat says the nursing home was slow getting personal protective equipment to staffers, then did a poor job of educating non-medical staffers on the importance of using PPE properly, like wearing face masks.
“They were given PPE; however, they were not wearing them correctly. They were wearing them under their nose or on their ear or just have them around their neck.”
Pat also says a lot of Highland’s staffers were unaware of new practices and policies designed to control the deadly virus once it was inside the facility.
And when more experienced floor staffers or nurses alerted nursing home management to the problem, those concerns fell on deaf ears, according to Pat.
“Sometimes it doesn’t seem like people listen to the people that take care of the residents,” said Pat.
KSLA Investigates tried calling and reaching officials with Highland multiple times to ask about Pat’s claims, but messages had not been returned at the time of publication.
The COVID-19 case count, which LDH now updates weekly, paints a bleak picture in Northwest Louisiana, where nursing home residents account for 51% of all coronavirus fatalities. In Caddo Parish, that figure jumps to 59%, with 156 dying from COVID-19 after contracting the disease while living in a nursing home.
Unfortunately, the morbid numbers come as no surprise to nursing home watchdogs, who say facilities in Louisiana and throughout the country are failing to follow appropriate infectious disease control practices during this crisis.
“Those numbers are high,” said Toby Edelman, senior policy attorney at the Center for Medicare Advocacy in Washington, D.C. “We knew that (nursing home) residents were going to be at tremendous risk because of advanced age and multiple health conditions. But with poor staffing levels and poor infection control practices, this was really a crisis waiting to happen.”
According to Edelman, the U.S. General Accountability Office recently found that 82% of nursing homes reporting at least one case of coronavirus have been cited for infectious disease control problems within the past five years by government regulators.
Edelman said she has little doubt that the infectious disease issues highlighted in the GAO report are manifesting right now in many Northwest Louisiana nursing homes.
“So the problems are not enough hand washing. That’s the number one problem in nursing homes,” Edelman said. “And not having personal protective equipment, not disinfecting medical equipment between residents, not tracking and tracing and isolating residents who are COVID positive. All of these problems have been going on and still going on now.”
A review of federal inspection reports, published by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, shows federal regulators citing 16 local nursing homes for improper infectious disease control since 2017. And five of the facilities got tagged with multiple infection control violations over the past three years. Those five nursing homes are The Guest House Skilled Nursing & Rehabilitation, Harmony House, Highland, Spring Lake Skilled Nursing & Rehabilitation and Town & Country Health and Rehab.
“It’s just been bothering me,” said Sam, an employee at Roseview in Shreveport, referring to people getting sick at the home. “That’s somebody’s granddaddy, daddy, brother.”
Fearing reprisal, Sam’s name and voice were altered to provide anonymity and freedom to speak out on television.
According to Sam, when the pandemic began to tear through Louisiana nursing homes, Roseview failed to properly supply its staff with personal protective equipment.
“Nothing at first, no masks, no nothing like that. One night didn’t have no mask, no gown, so I went to the linen cart and got just a bath towel and put it around my head.”
But Ed Killian, nursing home administrator at Roseview, said Sam’s claims are entirely false. “Not true. We’ve always had PPE in the building even before the COVID.
“There is no reason any staff or resident should need to wear a bath towel instead of a mask,” Killian continued. “That never happened.”
Sam and Pat both say all the illness and death caused by COVID-19 are weighing heavy on nursing home staffers.
“It’s emotionally hard on us,” Pat said. “I cry every night leaving work. We lose a part of ourselves every time one of our residents leaves us. We miss them.”
Right now, LDH reports 21 COVID-19 deaths among Highland residents and eight at Roseview. Other Northwest Louisiana nursing homes also are witnessing a frightening number of deaths related to COVID-19.
In fact, the latest analysis from LDH reveals that six Northwest Louisiana nursing homes have more deaths among residents than Roseview. Those facilities include Cypress Point and Vivian Healthcare Center, with 10 resident deaths each; Willow Ridge Nursing, which lost 17 people; and Garden Park, where the death toll now stands at 25, according to LDH data.
“The spread of this disease is very, very frightening. Once the COVID-19 infection gets into a facility, it spreads rapidly and it’s hard to control,” Edelman said. “So we know now that hand washing isn’t just something that’s cute and funny. People die when they get it.”
Nursing home residents are not the only ones falling ill with the disease. According to the latest analysis from LDH, 357 nursing home employees have been stricken with coronavirus.
“It’s scary. We don’t know who will be infected next, or if we will be infected,” said Pat.
For Sam, the fear of infection is now a reality because Sam allegedly tested positive for COVID-19 several weeks ago, with four rushed trips to the emergency room.
“It’s hard to get rid of,” Sam said, “They’ve put me on oxygen because I was just gasping for air. I’ve had chest X-rays, lung X-rays and just coughing up strings of blood.”
At this point, it is unclear if any people working in Northwest Louisiana nursing homes died after contracting coronavirus because LDH does not report that information in its weekly nursing home case count.
But Edelman said the number of infections among nursing home staffers is further proof of the need to follow proper infectious disease control practices because these frontline workers are the folks caring for the most vulnerable of our citizens during this deadly pandemic.
And if the staff is catching the virus and nursing homes are not taking the proper steps to control the spread of COVID-19, Edelman said, the loss of life inside these Northwest Louisiana facilities will climb much higher than the current count.
“A lot of this was preventable; it didn’t have to be this bad. If we don’t learn lessons from what’s happening right now, it’s going to happen again.”
Console agrees, saying the greatest risk comes from a small number of nursing homes. Facilities that the attorney says can inflict a good deal of harm if they forgo their responsibility to protect residents.
“On one end of the spectrum, you have a good nursing homes that are fighting the good fight and doing everything they can to protect there their patients,” Console said. “And then at the other end of the spectrum, you have what I consider the bad apple nursing homes. They were violating infection control procedure regulations before this outbreak. And now that has just intensified to the point where these homes have become a killing field.”
Killian told KSLA Investigates that he believes Roseview has contained the virus and that the case count at the nursing home is dropping, as no new resident has tested positive for the disease in more than two weeks. He also said that the 71 coronavirus cases diagnosed at Roseview may seem high, but they are due to the home testing every resident weekly, a practice set in place approximately five weeks ago, according to Killian.
“Most of the homes in Shreveport and Bossier have not tested all their residents," Killian said. “I think you’ll see when the other homes start testing that much, their numbers are going to go up, too.”