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22 COVID cases reported at Chandler nursing home reflect nationwide surge

Emails to families at memory-care facilities reveal a month-long battle against the infection.

PHOENIX —

At least 22 residents have tested positive for the coronavirus at a Chandler long-term care facility that is across the street from another assisted living home where at least 13 people have died from complications of COVID-19. 

The latest outbreak is at Avenir Memory Care in Chandler, near W. Pecos Road and S. Pennington Drive, according to an email sent Friday to residents’ families that was provided to 12 News.

Executive Director Kim Wada says in the email that two of the residents who tested positive have symptoms of coronavirus. The 20 others are asymptomatic, she says. 

“We are quarantining them the best we can,” Wada tells the families. “Being a memory-care-only community puts a lot more challenge on isolating.”

Avenir Memory Care’s capacity is 84 residents, according to the Arizona Department of Health Services’ database of residential facilities. Residents at memory care facilities have dementia.

Peggy Ulland, president of the facility’s parent company Avenir Senior Living, declined to respond to questions about the outbreak. Avenir also operates memory care homes in Scottsdale and Surprise. 

“I don’t have anything to tell you right now,” she said Monday in a phone interview. “I’m waiting for continued results of residents.”

A list of questions was sent to Avenir administrators two days ago. 

Ulland also wouldn’t comment on the emails.

 “I don’t know what you’re looking at,” she said.

One family member told 12 News that Avenir’s Chandler facility had been locked down for a month.

“I just have to hope my loved one already had it and has some antibodies or they’re doing a good job keeping them clean,” said the family member who asked not to be identified.

“It’s out of our hands," the family member said.  

Nursing homes and other assisted living facilities have become hot spots for the coronavirus in Arizona and around the country. 

One in every five COVID-19 deaths nationwide are linked to nursing homes, according to the New York Times.

Here in Maricopa County, three in every five patients who have died --74 of 121 victims through Monday -- were residents of long-term care facilities. 

In all, 94 long-term care facilities in the county have reported 533 COVID-19 cases among residents. There have been 233 cases and one death among staff.

DHS reports 163 “congregate settings” have reported coronavirus cases statewide, the overwhelming number in assisted-living or long-term care facilities. 

Arizona’s long-term care facilities have been shielded from both scrutiny and potential legal liability.

State Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ and Maricopa County Medical Director Dr. Rebecca Sunenshine have declined to release the names of nursing homes that have reported coronavirus cases.

An executive order issued by Gov. Doug Ducey last month makes it harder for families to file lawsuits against long-term care facilities over their handling of coronavirus cases, according to the Arizona Republic.

Avenir’s Chandler facility is across the street from Pennington Gardens, where at least 13 deaths related to COVID-19 have been reported.  All were in the facility’s assisted-living area.

RELATED: 13 die of coronavirus in Chandler assisted living facility

RELATED: Dozens of long-term care facilities in Maricopa County have COVID-19 cases

Emails provided to 12 News show Avenir’s administrators have been battling the infection through the month of April. The messages culminate in Friday’s email revealing the 22 confirmed coronavirus cases:

Hello fabulous family members!

As you know we have tested 95% of residents and team members. The results trickled in this week and we have called each of you with those results.  We have residents that tested positive with zero symptoms.  We are quarantining them the best we can.  Being a memory care only community puts a lot more challenge on isolating.

The CDC recommends segregating the positive and negative cases. We are feverishly working on this move. As you can imagine, this is an incredibly massive task. We are working around the clock to get everyone to the appropriate side. When one moves out, the suite is sanitized before the next moves in. 

The residents will be moved back to their original suites as soon as it is safe.  We have hired movers to help us with this assignment. The rooms and common areas continue to be sanitized daily. 

We had 22 residents test positive. 2 of them have symptoms. The other 20 are feeling fine and we continue to monitor their temps and oxygen SATS every 8 hours. 

An April 1 email reported that one resident with a confirmed case of a COVID-19 was sent to the hospital. A test on an employee came back negative. 

On April 14, families were told another resident who tested positive had been moved out.

On April 16, eight days before the 22 cases were reported, executive director Kim Wada emailed families that there were no positive cases at the facility. Two residents who tested positive were coming out of isolation. 

“We’re not out of the woods yet, but I hope this is a very good sign,” she said. 

A family member who spoke with 12 News reflected on the options when a loved one has Alzheimer’s or dementia while the coronavirus is raging.

“We’ve already tried to care for loved ones at home. We couldn’t keep them safe at home. I feel like they’re the most vulnerable that deserve to be cared for,” the family member explained.  

Avenir's vice president of marketing, Jason Gurash, emailed a statement to 12 News after this story aired on 12 News:

"We can confirm that we do have positive cases in our Chandler community but stress that from the onset of the pandemic Avenir has followed all the guidelines and recommendations set out by the Arizona Department of Health Services and continues...

"All medical essential personnel and staff are required to disclose any recent travel, temperatures taken and recorded each time they enter the community along with completing a questionnaire to confirm that they are not showing or feeling any symptoms connected to the virus. It was also required that our staff inform us of any additional employment at other health care settings in an effort to minimize the spread. 

"All required Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) is being worn by all essential workers, as outlined by the CDC, while in the community at all times. Anyone who presents any signs of illness will not be allowed to enter the community. Our employees are trained to recognize any signs of respiratory illness and are monitoring all our residents closely.

"Our infection control protocols have been fully implemented and additionally we have engaged a third-party restoration group to assist us in deep cleaning all common areas and residents’ suites on a regular basis in an effort to further reduce the spread of the virus...

"As we continue to navigate through the COVID-19 pandemic our focus is on the well-being of all our residents and staff above all."

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