Serious Questions Raised About Delays In COVID-19 Testing In LA County's Hard-Hit Nursing Homes

Amilicar Jones holds the program for his mother's funeral. Jones' mother died after contracting COVID-19. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

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Amilicar Jones was worried about his 81-year-old mother, Melvia. Before the pandemic, he would visit her in her nursing home every day. But beginning March 13, he and other family members across the country were shut out of these facilities due to safety concerns.

"So I would continuously call, FaceTime my mom. My mom was non-verbal but she was able to kind of respond to you at times," he said.

He knew the coronavirus was raging through nursing homes across the country, but he said his mom's health looked stable through April. The facility, Beverly West Healthcare, in L.A.'s Little Ethiopia neighborhood, hadn't reported any cases yet. By then he'd been asking about testing for weeks.

More than 2,000 people in Los Angeles County who live in nursing homes have died from the coronavirus, making up more than 40% of all deaths from the virus. But at many facilities, residents weren't tested until months into the pandemic, raising questions about testing delays.

"We know that residents of those facilities are extremely vulnerable to the virus. There is no reason why this should have taken so long," said Mike Dark, a staff attorney at the California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform.

At the time, Jones felt reassured by no reported cases at his mother's facility.

"So I was kind of like, 'OK, maybe she will be alright.' But then when May came, it was just like 'There's... too much room for error'," Jones remembers thinking.

On May 20, about two months after Angelenos were ordered to shelter at home, the nursing home started to test all of its residents and staff, according to the Los Angeles Fire Department, which provided testing kits to the facility. The nursing home, Beverly West, did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

PLANS TO BRING HER HOME

By the time testing was underway, Jones had already decided he wanted to move his mother out before anything bad happened. His mother needed professional care after having a stroke and seizure several years ago, so he looked for nurses to hire and prepared to get her back to her house.

"[I was] starting to redo her house, she lives not too far from here," he said. "She still had a lot of stuff, so I was... thinking of ways I can sanitize, try to set it up for her to be there."

But it was too late. What happened next was out of his control.

On May 26, about a week after Jones' mother got tested, she had trouble breathing and was sent to a hospital.

The next day, on May 27, Jones got a call from the nursing home with the results of the coronavirus test from the week before. His mother had tested positive.

Just hours later, he got another call. This time, from the hospital, where she had been since the night before. His mother's heart had stopped.

"I went that night. I just got into my car and started driving and went over to the hospital, and they let me in to see her. She was passed," he recalled, holding back tears. "I just saw her and I just talked to her and everything."

It was the last time he saw her.

"I ran out of time," he said.

Jones holds a photo of himself as a child with his mother. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

DELAYED TESTING IN LA COUNTY NURSING HOMES

In early May, the county announced that a quarter of nursing homes had tested all staff and residents, and that nursing homes reported delays in getting kits. It wasn't until mid-June that L.A. County health officials announced that testing had been completed at all skilled nursing facilities.

Advocates say that was too late.

"It's inexcusable that it took so long for county and state authorities to get their arms around the virus' spread in Los Angeles County facilities," said Dark, whose group advocates and litigates on behalf of nursing home residents.

Dr. Mike Wasserman, president of the California Association of Long Term Care Medicine, said he was pushing officials to prioritize testing for nursing home residents.

"We were strongly pushing the county in early April to test all their staff and residents in all the nursing homes in the county," Wasserman said. "It wasn't like the county didn't know that this virus could spread asymptomatically. That knowledge was available from the CDC in March."

L.A. County's Public Health Department said there were a number of factors for the delays in testing. For one, the department said, testing was limited during the early months. Nursing homes also delayed getting information to the health department so that officials could go out and test, the agency explained.

"DPH only got access to a commercial lab to support comprehensive testing in mid-April and at that time our allocation was only 700 tests/day which works out to 1-3 facilities a day," a county spokesperson wrote in an emailed statement. "We initially shipped kits to facilities but facilities often did not complete the collection and return the kits in a timely manner."

The statement went on to say that "[Skilled nursing facility] testing was one of the many priorities public health had during that time."

At Beverly West Healthcare in Los Angeles, the coronavirus infected around 90 staff members and residents. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

'IT WAS WILDFIRE'

At Beverly West nursing home, the virus was already taking hold when residents and staff were being tested.

A couple of days after testing started, Jones got an emailed letter from the facility, dated May 21, that said three residents and two staff members had tested positive for COVID-19. Jones said he called the facility and was told the residents and staff had been tested elsewhere.

"The three residents remain at local hospitals and the staff members are isolating at home," the emailed letter he received read. "At this time no other resident or staff member has exhibited any signs and symptoms."

It said the facility had completed mass testing by the L.A. County Department of Public Health that day, and the results were pending.

"It was wildfire by that point, once all the test results came back," said an employee of the facility who didn't want their name used for fear of retribution.

The employee said that the facility also didn't provide masks earlier on in the pandemic.

"They didn't want to pass them out in the beginning, but then they did after the fact," the employee said." "When people had the signs and symptoms, they started giving it to us, before they had the test results back. But then all of a sudden, it was too late by then."

Patricia Jordan, whose 93-year-old mother is also at Beverly West, said there should have been more scrutiny of nursing homes like this one, which has a history of quality issues.

"My mother is 93 years old as of April. I am beyond concerned not only about COVID, but the lack of care," she said.

Beverly West is listed as a "special focus facility candidate" by the federal government, which means it has a history of quality issues.

"I've been preparing myself that I may not see my mother before she leaves this earth. That she can die without me seeing her," she said. "It breaks my heart."

Jones is already heartbroken. And he's frustrated that testing didn't happen sooner for his mother, who was at high risk.

In contrast, Jones himself, who didn't have any symptoms, was able to get testing from a city site just three days after his mother had her test. He said his wife had made the appointment only the day before, and the process was quick.

He got his results before he got his mother's.

"A lot of people, I know, passed away in April in nursing facilities so I don't know how they couldn't have "safety-netted" it by May," Jones said.

According to L.A. County, at least 35 staff members and 54 residents have tested positive for the virus at Beverly West. Since May, at least 16 people at the facility have died from the virus.

Jones and his family held a funeral for his mom in early June.

"She was one of the most honest, caring people," he said. "I miss her. I miss her, you know, I miss her a lot."