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Deadly COVID-19 Cluster At Kansas City, Kansas, Facility Was ‘Confluence Of Bad Circumstances'

Riverbend Post Acute Rehabilitation, at 7850 Freeman Ave., in Kansas City Kansas, has been closed to the public since March 13. The sign on the front door says 'Please find other ways to communicate with your family and residents.'
Peggy Lowe
KCUR 89.3
Riverbend Post Acute Rehabilitation, at 7850 Freeman Ave., in Kansas City Kansas, has been closed to the public since March 13. The sign on the front door says 'Please find other ways to communicate with your family and residents.'

A cluster of 37 COVID-19 cases that caused four deaths at a Kansas City, Kansas, rehabilitation facility was brought on by “a confluence of bad circumstances,” Wyandotte County’s chief medical officer said Tuesday.

The outbreak at Riverbend Post Acute Rehabilitation was caused by the fast-moving coronavirus, a lag in testing results because of the need to ship to labs outside the Midwest, and the close interactions required at a rehab facility, said Dr. Allen Greiner, a professor and vice chair of family medicine at the University of Kansas Medical Center.

As of Tuesday, four people had died and 33 residents and four staff members had tested positive for the virus. Another 27 tests are pending, including 15 for residents and 12 for workers, Greiner said.

When the Unified Government’s health department announced last Friday that there were 19 cases at Riverbend, it may have looked “like there was some sort of explosion” of positive cases, Greiner said. In fact, it was brought on by the virus’s incubation period, which can last up to 14 days, as well as the national testing shortage and the need to ship tests to labs on the east or west coasts, he said.

“I think it's just the confluence of bad circumstances,” Greiner said, “and we need to learn from this.”

The Riverbend outbreak appears to be the largest of 11 COVID-19 clusters in Kansas.

The state is monitoring it, and the county and state are investigating. Ashley Jones-Wisner, a Kansas Department of Health and Environment spokeswoman, said the investigation “entails trying to figure out where each person may have gotten the disease and everyone who may have come into close contact with them while they were infectious.”

The outbreak was identified on April 2, when the state was notified by the county health department of one worker and one resident testing positive and others experiencing symptoms, she said.

While they can’t be sure just how the outbreak started at Riverbend, Greiner said looking at the residents who became infected leads them to believe that it was caused by a staff member three weeks ago.

“We're not 100%,” he said.

The 161-bed facility is owned by Big Blue Healthcare, Inc., a subsidiary of The Ensign Group, Inc., of Mission Viejo, California.

Cory Schulte, Riverbend’s executive director, didn’t answer an emailed set of questions from KCUR, citing a busy time delivering care to the residents.

“Please know that the actions we have taken up to this point and are taking in this moment (and will take in the future) with respect to managing the challenges created by the coronavirus are guided by medical professionals, and the original and updated publications and directives from (federal and state) public health authorities,” he wrote.

Riverbend leadership has been responsive to the health department and open to public health officials suggestions since the first case was detected, Greiner said.

Now, Greiner said, there are more labs doing testing in the Kansas City area, and he’s seeing innovation at some small biotechnology firms that have brought on new machinery and added employees and are processing tests.

“We need them to ramp up quickly so they can do a lot of tests and get the results back in, say, a 10- or 12-hour window, which is great,” Greiner said. “It's much better for us in the public health world to have that information quickly.”

Riverbend may have also been especially hard hit because of the nature of the facility. Many of the residents came out of hospitals in a frail state and are doing up to three hours of therapy a day, requiring lots of nursing care, Greiner said. The residents have lots of interaction with physical therapists, occupational therapists and sometimes speech therapists, he said, “so there's a lot of close contact going on.”

Peggy Lowe is an investigative reporter at KCUR and the Marketplace hub reporter. She's on Twitter at @peggyllowe.

Celia Llopis-Jepsen of the Kansas News Service contributed to this report.

Copyright 2020 KCUR 89.3

Peggy Lowe joined Harvest Public Media in 2011, returning to the Midwest after 22 years as a journalist in Denver and Southern California. Most recently she was at The Orange County Register, where she was a multimedia producer and writer. In Denver she worked for The Associated Press, The Denver Post and the late, great Rocky Mountain News. She was on the Denver Post team that won the Pulitzer Prize for breaking news coverage of Columbine. Peggy was a Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan in 2008-09. She is from O'Neill, the Irish Capital of Nebraska, and now lives in Kansas City. Based at KCUR, Peggy is the analyst for The Harvest Network and often reports for Harvest Public Media.