'So many tears': documents reveal Pines Acres staff's efforts to fight COVID-19 outbreak in facility

Documents show Pines Acres’ staff efforts to mitigate virus’ spread inside facility

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DeKALB – Pine Acres Rehab and Living Center accounts for the majority of deaths (eight out of 12) in DeKalb County as of Tuesday, and is linked to 74 cases, the largest coronavirus outbreak of the three longterm care facilities with cases locally.

As of Tuesday, eight residents have died due to complications from the viral respiratory disease: One of the eight residents has an address outside of DeKalb County so is not included in the 12 reported total deaths countywide.

Pine Acres employees have not responded to multiple requests for comment from the Daily Chronicle.

Documents including emails obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the Daily Chronicle paint a picture of the staff's continued efforts to fight the outbreak, including coordinating Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) deliveries through the DeKalb County Health Department and facilitating training for Pine Acres staff to administer COVID-19 tests.

One day after the first reported death, in a May 29 email from Pine Acres employee Nancy Demers to DeKalb County Health Department Nurse Cindy Graves, Demers said, "Lord I know you must be as tired as I am. It was so hard yesterday telling the staff then families and residents. So many tears."

"So sorry you all are having to endure this mess," Graves replied the same day, records show. "You are doing a great job even with such little internal support."

The first death, a woman in her 70s, was reported May 28. That was soon followed by a second death, Virginia Hennecke, 96, May 31. The third death, also a woman in her 90s, was reported June 3, and two days later on June 5, a woman in her 60s and a woman in her 90s also died. The latest reported Tuesday, June 9, included three more deaths: a woman in her 90s, a woman over 100, and another Pine Acres resident who's address isn't in DeKalb County.

In total, 52 residents and 22 employees at the 119-bed facility have contracted COVID-19 as of Tuesday.

Two other longterm care facilities reported cases, too. DeKalb County Rehab and Nursing Center reported three employees contracted the virus, and Bethany Rehabilitation & Health Care Center on Monday announced two employees contracted the virus. No deaths were reported at either facility.

Family members look for more

Some family members of residents say, however, they are not happy with what they call lack of communication from the facility regarding potentially exposed or ill loved ones.

On June 5, Jamie Szot emailed the Daily Chronicle expressing frustrations at being unable to ascertain in detail how Pine Acres staff was caring for his stepfather, who at that point had not tested positive for COVID-19.

"I am infuriated at the lack of communication from Pine Acres to the families," Szot said. "They are not keeping us updated about my step-dad’s health at all. He does not have any symptoms yet, that we know of. But the facility is not notifying us of anything. Maybe I am just an emotional family member. But I truly feel this is not right."

Simone Richardson's grandmother, Nada Simich, will be turning 94 in September and tested positive for the virus May 28, Richardson told the Daily Chronicle. She said her grandmother was placed in isolation inside Pine Acres after other family members declined to have her hospitalized.

She said her family was told they would allowed into the facility to see Simich "through glass to say her goodbyes."

"I was so flustered by this I called the facility this morning and got transferred to four different people," Richardson said May 29. "Till this day I guarantee my grandmother was not given quality care and will pass from this virus without her dignity which breaks my heart."

Some family members who contacted the Daily Chronicle did not wish to leave their name for fear that sharing the story publicly would bring retaliation upon their loved ones in the facility, or paint the staff in a poor light.

COVID-19 correspondence to residents' families

Weekly newsletters shared with the Daily Chronicle detail extra steps the facility staff are taking to mitigate further spread.

A May 20 newsletter (sent before any confirmed cases) stated the facility's goal was "to remain free of the virus for both residents and staff. We have done a great deal of assessment and planning regarding COVID19 to ensure we can keep our residents safe during this national pandemic."

Subsequent newsletters said residents were confined to their rooms, visitors were restricted and residents were assessed each shift for symptoms. All residents and staff were tested May 27, documents show, and were retested if they came up negative within 72 to 96 hours. Some residents were moved to different rooms inside the facility based upon their test results, document show.

"We have taken additional mitigation steps at this time," a May 24 newsletter read. "All staff are required to wear N-95 masks while in the building. Residents will wear cloth masks while in their rooms. No staff will cross over to another nursing unit. We will continue to screen all staff and essential visitors upon entering the building. They will need to have their temperature checked and will be asked questions regarding any COVID-19 symptoms they may be experiencing."

The letter also said the IDPH recommended the facility review Do Not Rescusitate orders with resident and their family members.

Similar newsletters were sent May 29 and June 2.

FOIA documents show the health department provided Pine Acres with logs to fill out to keep track of residents and employees who may show symptoms. The log sheet tracks name, resident or staff, date of birth, unit or room number, onset date of symptoms, whether they have a cough, fever, temperature, shortness of breath, sore throat, coryza (inflammation of mucus in the nose usually caused by colds or allergies), muscle aches, abdominal pain, diarrhea, loss of smell or taste, and if they've tested positive, are hospitalized or the date of their death.

On May 23, the day the first COVID-19 case was announced at the facility, Stacia Runge, health department coordinator of communicable disease, emailed Bruno Gamez, infection control/wound care specialist at Pine Acres to emphasize the health department was here to help.

"The health dept is already requesting the testing kits needed for your facility (residents and staff) from IDPH," Runge said. "We will be present in your agency on Tuesday at 9 a.m. to train nursing staff to do the testing. You may already be aware of this info but wanted to make sure you are being kept in the loop and hopefully you can calm Dr. Ahmad by reassuring him that the health dept is assisting with all of this."

PPE problems

On April 7, 850 surgical masks were given to Pine Acres by the county health department, documents show.

On May 8, 200 N95, 2,000 surgical masks, 100 face shield sets, two hand sanitizer boxes and 200 shoe covers were delivered to Pine Acres from IDPH, emails show. More gowns were distributed by the county health department on May 13. On May 29, more isolation masks and gowns were delivered to the facility.

On May 29, the facility received 80 more gowns, 10 N95 masks and 500 KN95 masks, documents show.

Correspondences between Graves and Gamez show coordinated efforts to get more PPE to the facility as the month of May wore on and more cases were announced.

On May 19, Gamez requested one additional infrared thermometer, more safety glasses and surgical masks (they were given 2,000 more of the latter, documents show), coveralls, large and extra large gloves. He said the facility was out of Cavi Wipes (medical disinfectant wipes) and Clorox refill packages.

On May 27, Melissa Edwards, spokesperson for the DeKalb County Health Department, emailed Jennifer Sloat, Pine Acres employee inquiring about an "anonymous tip" they'd received alleging PPE was stolen from Pine Acres.

"We are doing well with some of the supplies. We are having a little trouble locating gowns and N95 masks. As far as the stealing, I really do not know anything about that," Sloat replied on May 28, documents show.

On May 30, Sloat emailed Edwards again saying she was "having a little bit of trouble getting my hands on any kind of bleach wipes or bleach products."

Edwards' reply recommended a homemade bleach spray since they were also out of Clorox wipes: mix five tablespoons of bleach per one gallon of room-temperature water, or four teaspoons bleach per one quarter cup water.

"In the meantime, we have been using the CDC formula for cleaning product in our facility, too," Edwards said. "A few places in town still have bleach so we have been making our own spray. Bleach solutions will be effective for disinfection up to 24 hours."

This article has been updated to include comment from Jaime Szot, who's family member is a resident at Pine Acres.