KIRKLAND — The number of deaths and illnesses linked to novel coronavirus at Life Care Center of Kirkland may be higher than health officials have been able to confirm so far, according to the nursing home.
The bleak assessment was offered Saturday during the acute care facility’s first news conference since the outbreak was reported a week ago.
Life Care spokesman Tim Killian said that at least 13 residents who have died after being taken to hospitals tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. This lines up with the number of deaths associated with the nursing home released Saturday morning by Public Health – Seattle & King County, which also identified a Life Care visitor as among those who have died from the illness.
The facility, an early center of the outbreak in the U.S., has come under criticism for its lack of transparency and communication to families and visitors.
Life Care said a total of 26 residents have died since Feb. 19 at the acute care facility, which sees an average of three to seven deaths per month. That’s the date Life Care said the first patient was transferred out of the nursing home and later tested positive for the virus, and about a week and a half before the first confirmed cases from the nursing home were announced. The center continued to accept visitors for at least part of that time.
It is not known how many of the deaths are related to coronavirus, as the nursing facility has received the test results of 15 residents who died at the hospital, with 13 testing positive for COVID-19. The other 11 deaths occurred at the facility, and Life Care said it does not have information from postmortem tests that could reveal whether the residents died of COVID-19.
“You should understand that it’s not a simple thing to put these numbers together. This is a fluid situation. Numbers are changing quickly,” Killian said, later adding that the virus is “volatile” and “unpredictable,” with patients becoming gravely ill in the course of an hour.
“Within our population we have seen some results that have frankly concerned us with how quickly symptoms have shown, become acute and led to even death in some cases,” he said.
The number of confirmed cases and deaths being reported by public health agencies and other sources, like hospitals and care facilities, have been inconsistent as officials work to verify an influx of reported cases. In addition, there may be many more cases than officials have confirmed, as testing has been slow to ramp up in the state — even at the nursing home that’s been at the center of the outbreak.
Statewide, officials had confirmed 102 novel coronavirus cases, including 16 deaths, as of Saturday morning.
Officials announced Wednesday that all Life Care residents would finally be tested. Killian said the facility received its first batch of 45 test kits on Thursday, but that the tests are not all completed and that results have not yet come back. Life Care said it received enough kits to test all residents on Saturday afternoon from the state Department of Health.
In addition, of 180 employees who worked at Life Care on Feb. 19, 70 have symptoms of COVID-19 and are self-quarantined at home. Killian did not know how many had been tested or if any had been hospitalized. He also did not know whether self-quarantined employees were being paid while away from work.
Employees at Life Care who have spoken to The Seattle Times previously described the facility struggling with understaffing as staff stayed home ill. The nursing home received reinforcements from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the past week, as well as a disaster medical team from the Department of Health and Human Services.
“They truly are heroes in an unprecedented situation,” Killian said of the facility’s staff. He also praised first responders who have transferred patients to hospitals, and expressed condolences to the families of residents who have died.
Life Care said 54 residents have been taken to hospitals out of the 120 residents who were living in the nursing home on Feb. 19. There are currently 63 residents remaining at the nursing home, six of whom have symptoms of COVID-19, according to Life Care.
King County Executive Dow Constantine said Friday that officials were working with an expert to allow some residents’ families to take their loved ones out of the nursing home if safe. Some family members told The Times that they had not received information about this option.
Killian did not know if residents had left the facility.
“I know that there are residents who do have the option, if their family feels they can better take care of them, they do have the option to leave the facility,” Killian said.
No other facilities are willing to take Life Care residents, he said.
“There are hospitals that are unwilling to take them, [saying] they’re full unless they’re showing acute symptoms,” Killian said. “There are family members who don’t feel equipped.”
Cheri Chandler, a Kirkland resident, said her parents, Pat and Bob McCauley visited a friend at Life Care Center who is now in isolation at a hospital. She said her parents received no notification from the center about their possible exposure. They began to self-quarantine last Saturday after seeing news of the outbreak at the facility. She’s worried that other visitors may not be doing so.
Asked what Life Care was doing to notify visitors, Killian said, “The facility is working overtime to take care of, first and foremost, the residents that are here. We are aware that outside of this facility there are lots of people who need to be in touch with their own doctors. Even though we seem to be a focal point, this is a larger issue than just our facility.”
Killian, who previously worked in the administration of former Seattle Mayor Mike McGinn, said he does not work for Life Care Centers. He was brought in as a spokesman for the nursing home, which has been hit with criticism by King County officials for a lack of communication with the families of residents.
At a Thursday news conference in Seattle, Gov. Jay Inslee said the state could assume control of the facility because of the concerns, although he called it “only a possibility at the moment.”
King County officials sought to reassure the families of residents by sending a medical professional from the University of Washington into the nursing home Thursday. The professional had high praise for the facility, saying in his assessment that the facility appeared well-staffed and that patients were receiving proper care, but that he did see some clear signs of stress, according to county officials.
As for the possibility the government could take over the facility, Killian said those are just rumors. “There’s been no specific conversations of anybody taking over.”
He said the company will hold daily news briefings until further notice.