YUMA, AZ — "I'm here on behalf of those caregivers and the ones who have no voice, our clients."
Unsafe, unsupported, and uninformed, that's how employees at the long-term care facilities owned by the Saguaro Foundation say they feel as COVID-19 spreads among staff and residents.
The ABC15 Investigators spoke to two Saguaro Foundation workers, an organization that operates 10 group homes for people with developmental disabilities in Yuma County.
The employees' identity are being protected throughout this reporting as they fear retaliation from their current employer.
"This pandemic is so scary, and we need to speak up," said one of the employees.
"We're working with the elderly, with people that are not really strong," said a second employee.
Both employees spoke out about the conditions for some of the most vulnerable in Yuma, a location that's among the hardest hit by the coronavirus in Arizona.
One of the employees said to us that many fear going to work, but have no other option, "we all feel it is up to us to protect the homes. They have a pandemic plan that all is doing is spreading this virus within us and our clients."
These insiders say COVID-19 is sweeping through the homes and other Saguaro programs like day camps, infecting residents and staff.
"I'm very positive that I got it from the clients," said one of the employees who at the time of this interview was still under quarantine.
These two employees say the Saguaro Foundation has failed to prepare and provide for their staff and residents.
"Two masks, since it all started, that's all they've provided for us, we're here making masks for our clients, they don't even provide that for them," said one employee.
A second worker told us, "when all this started, they only gave us two masks since April and you should have seen the masks, they were huge, and opened on the side. You can breathe everything. When we tried to use the gloves from the company, they would approach us to tell us no, the gloves are only for when you're changing the client's diaper."
Here's the cleaning solution at one of the homes:
"We've been having issues getting the disinfecting stuff. Saguaro started giving us this yellow liquid. They started telling us to get whatever empty bottles or whatever for them to refill them for us to go ahead and spray it in the house," said one of Saguaro's Foundation workers.
Family members are also raising concerns, "I'm very concerned with how all the situation is being handled through the organization, from the day plan program to the group home, and so on," said Joseph Urtuzuastegui, his sister lives in a Saguaro group home.
"I'm very concerned for my sister. I have always been her protector from a very young age. She's a little bit older than me, and I feel helpless," stated Urtuzuastegui.
Urtuzuastegui feels there's been a lack of communication between the foundation and family members of residents when it comes to COVID-19, "I keep hearing more and more people are getting infected and that nursing homes are a big target, so it seems to me like extra precautions and measures need to be taken."
Saguaro and the state of Arizona will not confirm to us how many people are sick in their facilities.
In a statement, Saguaro says, it "has had no client deaths at our facilities."
Multiple Saguaro's workers told us that's not true, they say one resident has died.
Information we have confirmed through the deceased's family.
According to an insider at Saguaro, "one of the supervisors from another home tested positive and she's fighting this right now, one of her clients is the one that passed away."
One of the biggest concerns, insiders say, exposed and sick residents were not isolated from others and Saguaro asked exposed staff to work before completing full quarantines.
"Some of us are being asked to come back to work because they need coverage. It hasn't even been 14 days that they were sent to quarantine because someone was positive in that department. Not even 14 days. We're essential workers, we care, we're not numbers, we're not numbers and it hurts me that we're all scared. We're scared."
We have reached out to Saguaro Foundation, asking how they ensure their group homes comply with CDC guidelines. Edwardo Castro, Executive Director of Saguaro Foundation responded as follows:
"Saguaro Foundation submitted its pandemic plan to DDD. In addition, Saguaro Foundation continues to review this information and adjusts their Pandemic Performance Plan as necessary to ensure compliance with current guidance from the CDC and ADHS.
Saguaro Foundation attested by signing and submitting an attestation to DDD that our Pandemic Performance Plan is updated and is in line with current guidance. Verification of this attestation can be found through the Department of Developmental Disabilities. Furthermore, on a weekly basis Saguaro Foundation Directors attend COVID update meetings held by DDD and AAPPD, attendance sheets are available through AAPPD."
We've also asked about how Saguaro is ensuring those living in these group homes and staff are provided with proper PPE. In an email, Edwardo Castro, Executive Director of Saguaro Foundation responded:
"Saguaro provides all employees with face masks and gloves; these items are mandatory while on shift or providing direct care support.
Saguaro Foundation will follow the following guidelines for Confirmed Cases of COVID-19:
- Cleaning and disinfecting schedules will continue to be in place and conducted more frequently.
- All facilities will be following social distancing guidelines as stated previously.
- Member care will not be disrupted; including medication administration, activities of daily living, meals, etc.
- 1:1 ratio will be assigned to members to reduce exposure.
- Staff assigned to conduct 1:1 care will be provided with the proper PPE, including but not limited to Face Shields, KN95 mask, Isolation gown, gloves, etc.
- Follow all guidelines in Appendix 1,2 & 3 on DDD's QVA Guidance regarding COVID-19."
The ABC15 Investigators also requested information about the guidelines and methods of communication Saguaro follows to notify staff, all clients and their families of COVID-19 outbreaks in their facilities.
According to Edwardo Castro, Executive Director of Saguaro Foundation, "when either PCP or the Health Department notifies Saguaro Foundation of a positive case the following parties are contacted: guardian, health dept, PCP, DDD, any employee exposed. The Human Resource Director is in constant communication with the Health Department and Employers Council to ensure all necessary parties are notified."