As the novel coronavirus ravaged nursing homes in the early weeks of the pandemic, a doctor continued to see elderly and frail patients at one Renton facility despite having symptoms and then testing positive for COVID-19, a lawsuit alleges.
Dr. Nishita Bhumkar — under the direction of her boss, Dr. Darren Swenson, who runs Swenson Health Care, a service that places doctors in post-acute care facilities — told no one at the nursing home and filled out a screening checklist as if everything was fine, according to the allegations.
In time, at least 52 residents and 47 staff members became infected with the coronavirus at Renton Nursing and Rehabilitation Center — an outbreak that the lawsuit attributes to Bhumkar and Swenson. Nine people have died.
“The thing that is really shocking is the doctor knew she was infected and went on to sign a form that said she wasn’t,” said Dan Weiskopf, a lawyer representing the rehabilitation center, which cares for people who are sick or have recently left a hospital.
While the pandemic has generated many lawsuits, the intentional conduct makes this one stands out, he said. “I haven’t seen anything like it in the country.”
The lawsuit — filed in King County Superior Court by the nursing home against the doctors, Swenson Healthcare and another company Swenson runs — may also test who can be blamed for the spread of the virus during a chaotic time.
“In long-term care facilities and other congregate settings, it is hard to trace back where each person got infected and who they got infected from,” said Sharon Bogan, a spokeswoman for Public Health — Seattle & King County. “For example, there may be transmission between residents, between health care workers, and between health care workers and residents.”
Francis Floyd, the attorney representing the defendants, said the Renton Nursing and Rehabilitation Center patients who contracted COVID-19 did so “well after” the facility ended its contract with Swenson Healthcare. The nursing home won’t be able to prove that Bhumkar caused the outbreak, Floyd said.
The lawyer also said Bhumkar followed the guidelines issued at the time by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the state Department of Health (DOH). He added the complaint contained “totally, absolutely false” statements.
According to the timeline laid out in the complaint, Bhumkar, an internal medicine specialist, came down with COVID-19 symptoms March 10 and let Swenson know the following day.
Swenson had by that time issued a memo saying that employees with such symptoms “will not be permitted to return to work until cleared by their physician in coordination with health department and/or CDC officials as appropriate.”
Yet, according to the lawsuit, he told Bhumkar not to get tested or treated, and instructed her to keep working rather than quarantining herself.
On March 13, she went to the Renton nursing home to see patients.
Like many facilities for seniors, which were then experiencing the most devastating losses from the virus, the Renton Nursing and Rehabilitation Center had banned most visitors. Those deemed essential, like doctors, could only come in after completing a checklist asking whether they had been exposed to the virus and were showing any symptoms of respiratory infection associated with COVID-19, such as a fever, cough or sore throat.
Bhumkar, who worked at other facilities, including ones where patients had tested positive, answered no to both questions, according to a copy of the form included in the complaint.
“She didn’t lie about anything,” said Floyd. “She never had symptoms when she went into the facility.”
According to the lawsuit, Bhumkar took a COVID-19 test March 16 and got positive results back eight days later. Again, Swenson told her to keep working, the complaint said. One day after getting her results, Bhumkar went to the Renton nursing home and answered “no” to the questions on the checklist.
Floyd would not discuss the details of Bhumkar’s test or how she responded to it. But he said that guidelines allowed someone who tested positive to work after a period of time of being symptom-free.
He emailed DOH guidelines from March 20, which stipulated that health care workers with a confirmed COVID-19 infection should not return to work until seven days after symptoms first appeared and three days after a fever went away. Symptoms were to improve before someone went back to work.
Weiskopf, the nursing home’s lawyer, maintained that Bhumkar had an obligation to tell the facility that she had tested positive and experienced symptoms. “She shouldn’t be the one deciding” whether she was safe to see patients there, he said.
In the end, many of the patients Bhumkar examined — ranging in age from 55 to 99, and with conditions like heart disease and dementia — contracted the virus, as did their roommates and a nurse who made the rounds with the doctor, according to the lawsuit.
It alleges, among other things, negligence and violation of the state Consumer Protection Act and seeks unspecified damages for harm to the nursing home.
The exact timeline and details of Bhumkar’s health will undoubtedly be crucial to the case. As yet, it’s uncertain whether they will play out in court.
The doctors are arguing that the case should go to arbitration because of a clause in the contract with Swenson, who served as the facility’s medical director.
Renton Nursing and Rehabilitation Center is fighting that, saying this is a case of public interest that should be heard by the public. A judge has yet to make a decision.