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Valley long term care facility employees worked at multiple COVID-19 hot spots

Posted at 9:26 PM, May 01, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-02 18:41:25-04

PHOENIX — The number of cases and deaths at long-term care facilities continues to skyrocket, as state health leaders continue their refusal to release data on individual facilities.

In eight of the 20 days, between April 13 to May 1, long-term care facilities have accounted for 100% of Maricopa County's COVID-19 deaths.

People who know the industry say the rapid spread is no surprise given the fact that many caregivers work multiple jobs at different facilities.

On March 11, Arizona nursing homes started to go into lockdown.

"To date we have not had community spread at a nursing home or elder care facility, but we could," said Governor Doug Ducey, at his press conference declaring a public health emergency.

As of May 1, nearly 700 Maricopa County men and women in 112 long term care facilities have contracted coronavirus.

Of the 695 residents who have the disease, 25% have been hospitalized, and 14% have died, like loving grandmother, Beverly Schwartz.

"It didn’t have to happen," said Debi, Schwartz's daughter. "I thought I had chosen well."

So how did this happen - especially after all visitation was banned in early March? Insiders say it is obvious.

"It was a common thing for our caregivers to go work at another community," said a former employee at Pennington Gardens in Chandler, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of industry retribution.

As of last week, the Chandler facility had 16 residents who had died from COVID-19.

Less than a mile away, ABC15 uncovered four more deaths and 53 more cases at Desert Cove Nursing Center.

"The nurse that we had at the time, she was working down at Desert Cove," said the former Pennington employee.

Pennington's parent company, Compass Living, confirming to ABC15 that there was overlap.

"When we became aware of our first positive case at Pennington, the employee was instructed to inform their other employer and, to our knowledge, stopped working at the other community," wrote a spokesperson in an emailed statement to ABC15. "Conversely, Pennington Gardens prohibits any employee from working at our community who has been exposed to COVID-19 outside of Pennington, including at other senior living communities. As such, prior to learning of our first positive case, any employee exposed outside of Pennington Gardens was required to immediately quarantine at home."

"Maricopa County does a very good job at instructing the folks in a facility, lock your staff down," said Dave Voepel, CEO of the Arizona Healthcare Association. "But they can only do so much because you need staff."

Pennington did not just overlap with Desert Cove. "I know for a fact Westchester," said the former employee.

Westchester Senior Living is where Beverly Schwartz contracted COVID-19. She later died after being taken to Tempe St. Luke's after being hooked up to breathing machines in the ICU for more than a week.

Schwartz lived just one door down from her friend Bill O'Brien, who is currently in the ICU on a ventilator.

"Every time I talk to staff my heart drops," said Shannon Parys, Bill's daughter, who also noticed nurses working at multiple facilities. "They are bringing in registry caregivers that are floating all over the Valley at many different assisted-living places."

O'Brien was the first to catch COVID-19, around Easter.

But now, 15 of the 16 people in his memory care unit have the virus. As well as 29 other residents at the long-term care facility. None of them have left the building in the past 50 days.

The only people who have -- the 25 Westchester employees who have also tested positive for COVID-19.

Westchester said all of their staff was recently tested. In addition to the 25 employees that tested positive, 25 were negative and 11 had "inconclusive" test results.

It is important to remember that many people who contract COVID-19 are asymptomatic for days, which is likely how it was able to spread from facility to facility.

While many relatives tell ABC15 they are frustrated with management's lack of communication.

Almost all say they are appreciative of the nurses and caregivers, who are doing their best during this very difficult time.