'They're keeping us in the dark': Coronavirus response enrages families

A cluster of cases, including several deaths, at a long-term care facility in Kirkland, Washington, has left family members demanding answers.
Image: Luterman and Connolly, who both have a family member at the Life Care Center of Kirkland, speak about the confusion and differing information they've received
Curtis Luterman and Kevin Connolly, who both have a family member at the Life Care Center, talk to reporters in Kirkland, Wash., on March 5, 2020.Lindsey Wasson / Reuters

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By Erika Edwards

Kevin Connolly is furious, and he needs answers.

Connolly, a resident of Washington, is one of several with loved ones at the long-term care facility Life Care Center in Kirkland, where several residents and those affiliated with the establishment have fallen ill with the coronavirus.

It's quickly become a mini epicenter for spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus.

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Ten people associated with the center have died, King County has said, and tests for the infection are pending for others. Other seemingly healthy residents, such as Connolly's father-in-law, Jerry Wall, 81, are still waiting to be tested for the virus that's now infected more than 101,000 worldwide and killed more than 3,400. Older adults, especially those with underlying health conditions are most at risk for complications.

"I don't know why it's taking so long for those test kits to get there," Connolly told NBC News. He said health officials have not communicated effectively about what's happening at the Life Care Center.

They're keeping us in the dark.

"If they called and said, 'We found 15 tests, we're going to use them,' we'd be like OK, great," Connolly said. "But there's nothing. There is zero information," he said. "They're keeping us in the dark."

But the head of the Life Care Centers of America said his staff is reaching out to residents' family members.

"Communication is vital in the caregiving process and for keeping families abreast of developments in dealing with the coronavirus (COVID-19)," Beecher Hunter said in a statement released Thursday.

Access to tests for the virus has been a problem throughout the country. After initially bungling the rollout of test kits, which proved to be faulty, the Trump administration promised labs nationwide would have the ability to perform "a million" tests by the end of this week.

Vice President Mike Pence later admitted that goal would not be met. Public health experts have repeatedly said the best way to contain the virus is tests to identify those who are infected, as well as their close contacts.

'She wasn't sick'

Some families with loved ones at the Life Care Center spoke out at a news conference Thursday.

None of those people expressed frustration with the center's staff. Pat Herrick, whose mother had been at the facility, called the nurses and other workers "exceptional."

Herrick's mother, Louise, died early Thursday, though questions remain about whether she'd become infected with the coronavirus. "As far as we knew, she wasn't sick," Herrick said during a press conference Thursday. She is now trying to get her mother's remains tested for the virus.

Medics load a patient into an ambulance outside the Life Care Center of Kirkland in Washington on March 4, 2020. The facility is linked to several confirmed coronavirus cases.David Ryder / Reuters

Herrick said the last time they spoke, her mother said she felt depressed because she couldn't leave her room, and her roommates had been coughing.

"She said, 'Most importantly, I don't know when I'm going to get to see you again,'" Herrick recalled.

Just a few days later, her mother had passed away.

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Herrick, Connolly and others were baffled at what they called a lack of response from anyone on a state or the federal level of public health.

"We are continually told that our loved ones are safe in this establishment," Connolly said Thursday. "I want Mike Pence to come sit with my father-in-law for an hour in this facility if it's that safe."

Pence did meet with Kirkland's mayor while in Washington this week, but did not visit the Life Care Center.

Federal response?

NBC News reached out to a number of public health agencies for reaction to the families' frustrations.

Representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the agency does have a team on the ground in Washington, but is there to help with infection control only, not necessarily communication. That is left to local health officials.

The Department of Health and Human Services declined to comment on the situation in Kirkland, despite the fact that the Washington State Department of Health told NBC News that "a team of clinicians from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services" was in the state "to assess the situation at the Life Care Center and begin clinical support as soon as possible."

The department instead referred reporters to either the CDC or the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.

That last department provided NBC News with a statement from CMS Administrator Seema Verma, which read in part, "For the Trump Administration and CMS, patients come first. The health, safety and welfare of America's patients — including nursing home residents — and our provider workforce in the face of the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (COVID-19) is our highest priority."

The statement did not address the Life Care Center in Kirkland.

Bonnie Holstad holds a sign expressing concern for her husband, Ken Holstad, a resident at Life Care Center of Kirkland, Wash., on March 1, 2020.David Ryder / Reuters

Late Friday, an executive with King County, Washington said that medical professionals from the U.S. Public Health Service are scheduled to arrive this weekend to help at the Life Care Center.

The back-and-forth was not lost on Connolly.

"I don't know who we're supposed to get angry with," he said. Connolly said he feels he has no choice but to leave his father-in-law at the Life Care Center to protect the community from any possible exposure. His father-in-law had not been tested for the virus, though, as of Friday afternoon.

"Plus, what care worker can I hire that is going to take on the job of caring for an infirm elderly man from the Life Care Center?" he asked. "I have no options."

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