At the time of the evacuation, the center was looking after more than 80 patients, 34 of whom have tested positive for the coronavirus, Riverside County Public Health Officer Cameron Kaiser said at a news conference. Five employees have also contracted the virus, Kaiser said.
“We have a large vulnerable population at any of our long-term-care facilities, and we want to make sure those people are taken care of,” he said.
Nursing homes and other long-term-care centers nationwide have been hit particularly hard by the coronavirus, which poses much higher risks to elderly people and those with underlying health conditions. In recent months, facilities have reported struggling to contain the spread of covid-19 among patients, with staff growing increasingly concerned about becoming exposed to the virus themselves due to shortages of personal protective equipment.
Riverside County officials say they do not yet know why many of Magnolia’s staff members stopped reporting for duty. As of Wednesday, Kaiser said his office had not received any complaints from the staff about working conditions at the 90-bed center, which bills itself as “one of the finest skilled nursing facilities in Riverside, California.”
But no matter how justified the reasoning may be, Kaiser said he is concerned that the employees’ actions “could rise to the level of abandonment.”
“Nationwide, all of our health-care workers are considered heroes, and they rightly are,” he said. “But implicit in that heroism is that people stay at their posts.”
Officials learned something was amiss Monday when they received a notice that the Riverside facility “had made a large staffing request for the next day which was considered an unusual event,” Kaiser said. The request came just days after testing confirmed an outbreak of covid-19 at the center.
Upon contacting the nursing home, Kaiser said he was informed that a “substantial portion” of employees had not come in for their shifts.
On Tuesday, only one certified nursing assistant out of the 13 scheduled to work showed up, which prompted facilities nearby to send more than 30 of their own nurses to the center, according to a news release from the county.
The staffing problem persisted into Wednesday morning, Kaiser said at the news conference, leaving him with no choice but to order the evacuation “to safeguard the well-being of the residents and ensure appropriate continuity of care.” According to the most recent figures, Riverside County has 1,179 confirmed cases of the coronavirus, with 32 reported deaths.
Bruce Barton, director of the county’s emergency management department, told reporters that Wednesday’s operation involved 53 ambulances as well as assistance from the fire department and police.
The Southern California county isn’t alone in its struggles to care for its vulnerable residents amid the pandemic.
Since the coronavirus reached the United States, reports of nursing homes and eldercare facilities becoming overwhelmed by outbreaks have surfaced regularly.
Last month, a senior-care center in New Jersey relocated all 94 of its residents following a covid-19 outbreak that also sickened several workers, causing critical staffing shortages. Meanwhile, the CEO of a company running several eldercare facilities in New York, the epicenter of the U.S. outbreak, started advising family members to take their loved ones home if possible, NBC News reported this month.
The Seattle Times reported Wednesday that at least 137 long-term-care facilities in Washington state had residents test positive for the virus. More than 200 deaths have been linked to them, according to the Times, about half the total fatalities in the state from covid-19.
On Wednesday, as patients from the Riverside center were still waiting to be transported, Barton issued a plea to health-care workers for assistance.
“We are in immediate need for help to care for our most vulnerable patients,” he said. “We will provide full PPE. We will pay you and provide malpractice. The facilities you work in will be clean. We have an amazing team that is working on this night and day. Please come join us.”