By Matt Hamilton, Los Angeles Times, July 9 2020
The letter in early April seemed forthright, notifying families that a resident at Hollywood Premier Healthcare Center received a diagnosis of COVID-19.
It ended with a promise: If a loved one was “suspected or diagnosed” with the menacing disease caused by the coronavirus, family would be promptly notified.
Jamie Ann Ivey was concerned, but no nurses or administrators had informed her of any changes to her father’s health.
Unbeknownst to Ivey, her father, James Ivey, had tested positive for COVID-19 nearly a week earlier, and she said it would take another week for her to learn of his diagnosis. The grim news came the day before he died in the skilled nursing home on Fountain Avenue.
The shocking allegation is made in a lawsuit that Ivey and her siblings filed last month in Los Angeles County Superior Court against Hollywood Premier.
“They knew he was positive and they didn’t even tell me. They never told me until I pressed the last day,” Ivey recalled in an interview. “Why didn’t you notify me? Why wasn’t he sent to the hospital? … Why did you keep him there?”
Ivey’s litigation, which names the nursing home’s legal entity, Serrano Post Acute LLC, is among a growing number of lawsuits filed across California against nursing home operators that accuse staff and administrators of negligence, reckless misconduct and elder abuse in their response to the coronavirus.
At least 3,176 nursing home residents have died from COVID-19, 49% of the statewide total, according to data compiled by The Times, and federal data from last month show tens of thousands of deaths among residents and staff at nursing homes across the nation.
At Hollywood Premier, 58 residents and 38 staff had tested positive for COVID-19 and at least 19 died as of May 8, when Los Angeles County’s Public Health Department closed an investigation into the outbreak there. At some point during the investigation, the facility switched to taking only patients who test positive.
The lawyer representing Ivey and her siblings blamed Hollywood Premier for conditions that allowed the novel coronavirus to flourish.
“They violated the infection control policies, they understaffed the facility, and at times had two nurses caring for about 90 residents,” Ivey’s attorney, Dmitriy Cherepinskiy, said of Hollywood Premier. The lawyer said he defended healthcare institutions and physicians for more than a decade before switching to represent patients and their families.
“The fact that they did not transfer him to a hospital — that just shows an attempt to cover it up and brush it off,” Cherepinskiy said.
Administrators at Hollywood Premier did not respond to messages seeking comment.
Family members of residents have pushed for heightened scrutiny of the facility. In May, the family of Vincent Martin, 84, sued Hollywood Premier in state court, accusing it of negligence, fraud and elder abuse, and their attorneys asked Los Angeles County Dist. Atty. Jackie Lacey to “open a criminal investigation into the troubling circumstances surrounding” Martin’s death on April 4.
The family alleged in their lawsuit and reported to Lacey’s office that two nurses were tending to 83 residents; that the facility’s top administrator was out sick with COVID-19 since March; that their father’s positive test results came back the day after he died, but that a physician affiliated with the facility “fraudulently prepared the death certificate” to omit COVID-19.
“There are so many questions left unanswered,” said Kathy Sessinghaus, Martin’s daughter.
James Ivey, a 78-year-old retired machinist who liked building planes out of balsa wood and fishing in the Sacramento River, entered Hollywood Premier on Jan. 21.
His daughter said her father, “an ornery old Southern man,” had limited mobility and required a wheelchair, but did not have a terminal illness.
Ivey said she visited a few times each week, sometimes bringing cash so he could order deli sandwiches.
When she came March 11 to drop off a razor and some pajama pants, Ivey’s lawsuit said, staff told her that due to the virus, further visits were prohibited, although few employees had face masks and no residents did.
By April 2, for reasons that are unclear, her father was tested. Two days later, a lab reported James Ivey was positive for COVID-19, according to the lawsuit.
Ivey called the facility often to check on her father, but nothing seemed amiss until April 16. Shortly after midnight, a nurse called to say her father’s heart rate was “extremely low” and asked if 911 should be called. Ivey agreed.
By 2 a.m., paramedics arrived and told the facility they would not take her father to the hospital because they did not want him exposed to COVID-19. No one informed the paramedics that he had already contracted the disease, the lawsuit said.
The next morning, Ivey said she called Hollywood Premier to follow up on her father’s condition. The nurse gave a rundown of his medication, and said he was “sleeping a lot.”
Ivey said she struggled to get accurate information. If she called at night, she’d be told to call during the day. By then, the receptionist said administrators were at lunch or in a meeting.
“You’d be on hold six minutes and be transferred easily three times to get the person you need to talk to,” Ivey said. “There was always an excuse.”
And if Ivey wanted to talk to her dad, more explanations followed: He would be sleeping, or at a meal, or it would be between shifts, or the nurses could not locate the cordless phone to take to his bedside.
“It was almost like they were not letting me talk to him — that’s kind of how I felt,” Ivey said.
When Ivey got a nurse on the phone to follow up on her father’s care, the nurse said he was “doing better” but he “kept removing his oxygen and complaining that the mask was bothering him,” the lawsuit said.
After the call ended, Ivey grew suspicious. She wondered why her father had on an oxygen mask. Around midnight on April 19, the lawsuit said Ivey got a nurse on the phone and pressed if her father had been checked for COVID-19.
The nurse responded that “because of exposure,” he was tested on April 2 and the result came back positive. The news was delivered with nonchalance, according to the lawsuit.
“My heart dropped in my chest,” Ivey said. “It all came together for me — the way she said it was like it was no big deal.”
James Ivey died April 20, and his death certificate lists COVID-19 among the causes, according to the suit. In his final hours, Ivey asked the nurse to put her father on speaker phone.
“I could hear him crying for help,” Ivey said through tears. “There was nothing I could do. I had to sit there and listen to him as long as she held it.”