‘It’s been a nightmare.’ Inside Chatsworth nursing home’s struggle to contain its coronavirus outbreak

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By Olga Grigoryants | Los Angeles Daily News | May 3, 2020

Lisa Cook at the Stoney Point Healthcare Center in Chatsworth, CA Wednesday, April 29, 2020. For several days Cook had no communication with her 62-year-old husband, a resident in Stoney Point nursing home in Chatsworth. When she finally convinced a nurse to let her FaceTime with her husband who recently had a stroke, she could barely recognize him. (Photo by David Crane, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

For several days, Lisa Cook had no communication with her 62-year-old husband, who was confined to Chatsworth’s Stoney Point nursing home after a stroke left him paralyzed.

When she finally persuaded a nurse to let her FaceTime with him, Cook barely recognized her husband. “Unkempt and unshaved,” he looked like a stranger. But his appearance was the last thing Cook was concerned about. She feared her husband was not getting proper care and medication. She also worried about a lack of communication from the nursing home’s management team.

“The administration has been silent,” said Cook, 60. “It’s been a nightmare.”

The 132-bed Stoney Point Healthcare Center has been hit hard by the coronavirus outbreak, which, according to county statistics, has sickened 17 residents and 25 employees, killed six people and — like senior care facilities across the country — forced the closure of the center to the public.

Cook said she carefully followed daily briefings with county and state officials promising to boost staffing levels and offer testing to all residents and employees at nursing homes, but she still feared the situation at Stoney Point was spiraling out of control.

Since the nursing home banned visitors in March, the FaceTime calls gave Cook her only opportunity to connect with her husband. But then she was told she could no longer speak with him because nurses did not have time to hold a cellphone for him.

The last time she spoke with him, “he was very unkempt and I’m sure it’s because they don’t have enough nurses,” Cook said, her voice breaking. “I’m so worried that he is not getting medication on time.”

About a week ago, her husband started coughing and Cook asked the nurses to test him for COVID-19. The results came back negative, but a few days later he developed shingles, a viral infection that causes a painful skin rash.

Shortly after, he was moved into an isolation room where a coronavirus patient used to reside, she later learned.

Cook said the management had never notified her about her husband’s location. Instead, she was getting updates from nurses, who told her they had been working with a skeleton crew as the remaining staff was calling in sick or quitting.

“I’m afraid about what can happen to him because I don’t know his overall condition,” she said.

David Oates, a crisis communications specialist representing Stoney Point, wrote in an email that the facility has “appropriate staffing levels in accordance with County Health and CDC guidelines with 110 total staff, including more than 60 nurses.”

While 23 members of staff are not working after testing positive for COVID-19, he wrote, the county Department of Public Health and local health-care agencies have provided trained personnel to work at Stoney Point.

“This incident underscores the service and sacrifices made by our dedicated team every day,” Oates wrote in the email.

Labor officials say nursing homes have been grappling with providing personal protective equipment to staff — many of them low-wage employees — who often work with infected patients without the most basic of protections. Some have turned raincoats and rags into isolation gowns.

Kim Evon, executive vice president of SEIU Local 2015 — which represents thousands of nursing home employees across the country, including those at the Chatsworth facility — said it was important to “act with urgency” and provide workers with personal protective equipment “to ensure that they are able to work safely and protect the residents they care for and protect themselves, their families.”

She added that workers need to know that “their employers are going to support them if they get sick and they need to make sure if they get infected they have sick leave available to take and come back.”

During a recent daily pandemic briefing, L.A. County Department of Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer suggested that that nursing homes consider offering multiple shifts to their employees so they wouldn’t need to work at more than one facility, potentially carrying the virus from one nursing home to another.

But Evon said the suggestion is not going to solve the problem.

“These homes are not paying these workers enough and that’s why they have to work two-three jobs,” she said, adding that nursing homes need to raise wages so workers can have one job that offers insurance and sick leave.

In the meantime, Cook said she looks forward to the time when she can regularly communicate with her husband again, even via FaceTime.

“I missed him a lot,” she said. “I’m afraid of what can happen to him.”