WJC Stories

As COVID-19 clusters mount, some deadlier than reported

By Mary Clarkin, The Active Age

When Sedgwick County announced Sept. 1 that Meridian Rehabilitation and Health Care Center was a COVID-19 cluster with 18 cases but no deaths, the families of some residents knew the situation was even worse. 

Two residents, Roseshell Adams and Jack Van Es, had been infected by the virus by the time they died in late August, although they also suffered from other health issues, their families say.

“I wanted her out of there,” said Ella Adams, niece of Roseshell Adams. 

The virus was moving through Meridian in July, according to Adams. Her aunt died at Ascension Via Christi St. Francis during the last week of August. 

Teri McCammon, Van Es’s niece, said her uncle went to the hospital briefly but returned to Meridian and received hospice care before dying Aug. 31.   

In mid-October, Sedgwick County reported nine COVID-19-related deaths had occurred among Meridian residents, but the nursing home itself had already reported 13 deaths to the federal government. That appears to make it the deadliest cluster in Sedgwick County, surpassing the 12 deaths reported at Clearwater Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.

Sedgwick County public information officer Kate Flavin said news releases are sent with the information that’s available, and it may have been that the deaths were not yet reported. 

Skilled nursing facilities such as Meridian that accept Medicare and Medicaid patients are required to file weekly COVID-19 reports with the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS). As of early November, the 106-bed Meridian had experienced a total of 62 confirmed cases of COVID-19 among residents and 43 confirmed cases among staff.

Sedgwick County has not made public a breakdown of deaths in long-term care facilities since Oct 16, when deaths of nursing home residents accounted for 58 of the county’s 120 total fatalities. As of Nov. 14, Sedgwick County reported 44 long-term care facilities that were COVID-19 clusters, compared to 30 in October. There were 492 active cases and 442 recovered cases. Statewide, 563 deaths in long-term care facility clusters accounted for nearly 45 percent of Kansas’ 1,256 deaths from the virus.

A spokesman for The Tutera Group, Kansas City, Missouri, where Meridian’s corporate owner is located, did not dispute the data showing 13 deaths at Meridian. 

The spokesman, who talked to The Active Age but declined to give his last name, said there shouldn’t be a correlation drawn between a nursing home’s past record of inspections and its experience with the virus. Meridian was cited for numerous health and safety violations in 2017 and 2019 and assessed fines totaling $39,910. On medicare.gov., where five stars is the best rating, Meridian currently has one.  

The Tutera Group has facilities in seven states. “We have extremely good, very good buildings with excellent survey results that get completely trashed with COVID,” the spokesman said. “We have buildings that have poor surveys that don’t have any COVID.”

Meridian reported its first confirmed case among residents in a filing with the CMS in the week ending Aug. 2. By the week ending Aug. 30, Meridian listed its first resident death. The death toll rose for three more weeks, reaching a plateau of 13 in the latter half of September.  

Clearwater Nursing and Rehabilitation Center had been the deadliest cluster in Sedgwick County for much of this year. Sedgwick County had the death total there at 12 residents as of October, while Clearwater’s reports to the CMS showed it has stayed at a total of nine resident deaths through the summer and fall. Clearwater Nursing’s corporate owner, Willie Novotny of Manhattan, did not respond to an inquiry about the death numbers. 

Differences in COVID-19 data have persisted during the pandemic. Besides Meridian, two other facilities in Sedgwick County — Diversicare and Larksfield Place — showed an increase in resident deaths from the county’s data in mid October to the Nov. 1 CMS report. Diversicare’s death toll climbed from five to seven and Larksfield’s from one to two. The CMS reports only include information from homes that accept Medicaid and Medicare. 

Barbara Hickert, the Kansas Long-Term Care Ombudsman, said there have been reports from families with relatives in nursing facilities who say they are not being kept informed about COVID-19 cases in facilities, as required. There also was a complaint about a facility not reporting all the positive cases to state and local health authorities, Hickert said.

“It’s hard to know what’s being reported,” Hickert said in an email, adding that it’s often difficult to reconcile the data between the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, the CMS and county offices. 

Some Kansas counties don’t identify locations at all; KDHE identifies locations if they reach a certain level of positive cases within a certain time frame; and the CMS data’s release is delayed, Hickert said. 

Mitzi McFatrich, executive director of Kansas Advocates for Better Care, said she recently received a reliable report of a facility with a cluster of COVID-19 cases in Johnson County, but it did not show up on the Kansas Department of Health and Environment cluster list.

“I have great concerns about information and reporting during COVID,” McFatrich said.

Contact Mary Clarkin at mary.e.clarkin@gmail.com.

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