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Family Wants Information As COVID-19 Deaths Rise At Kansas City, Kansas, Rehab Facility

A worker leaves Riverbend Post Acute Rehabilitation in Kansas City, Kansas, where seven people have died of COVID-19 and 69 cases have been confirmed.
Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
A worker leaves Riverbend Post Acute Rehabilitation in Kansas City, Kansas, where seven people have died of COVID-19 and 69 cases have been confirmed.

To hear Donna tell it, she may have the “19,” but she’s doing just fine, thank you.

Donna is an 82-year-old resident of Riverbend Post Acute Rehabilitation, a Kansas City, Kansas, facility that appears to have the largest cluster of COVID-19 cases in Kansas.

As of Thursday, 7 people had died at Riverbend. The facility has beds for 161 residents; so far, 61 have tested positive for the virus, including Donna. Eight staff members have also tested positive and seven residents are hospitalized, according to the Unified Government Public Health Department.

Donna talks every day with her son and daughter-in-law, Wayne and Debbie Ova, who live in Osawatomie. To protect her privacy, they’ve asked that KCUR not use Donna’s last name.

Donna, who is from Leavenworth, has been in Riverbend since February doing rehabilitation after back surgery. So far she has a cough but no temperature, Debbie Ova said.

Ova told KCUR that she and her husband learned that Donna had the coronavirus on April 2. She had tested positive two days before, but the Ovas learned of it when Donna brought it up during a phone call.

“’Oh, I have the virus but not that virus. I just have the 19,’” Ova remembers Donna saying.

So the Ovas called the Riverbend nursing staff, who confirmed the information but downplayed the crisis.

“They’ve been very elusive about letting family know anything about the corona,” Ova said. “When we call them, ‘Oh she’s OK, everybody’s OK.’ I guess they have to do that because of all the press right now.”

That tactic might be working, because when Ova talked to her mother-in-law on Thursday, Donna was in the dark.

“Maybe they need to not let the residents know the severity of what’s going on in the whole place. Because my mother-in-law … is totally unaware that there are so many cases there,” Ova said. “In fact, she says, ‘You can’t believe everything you see in the press.’”

A sign at the entrance to Riverbend Post Acute Rehabilitation says visitors are not allowed.
Credit Peggy Lowe / KCUR 89.3
KCUR 89.3
A sign at the entrance to Riverbend Post Acute Rehabilitation says visitors are not allowed.

So far, public health officials have described different levels of severity for COVID-19, labeling them as mild, moderate, serious, severe or extreme.Donna told her daughter-in-law that she was moved from her second-floor room to the first floor, where the positive cases are being treated. She’s noticed that the staff is wearing masks, Debbie Ova said, and that there are a lot more people near her now.

“She said, ‘They've just moved so many people down here by me for 19,’ so she might realize some of what is going on,” Ova said.

Dr. Allen Greiner, Wyandotte County’s chief medical officer, said he’s been urging all facilities to confine coronavirus patients to one place.

“We're really encouraging facilities that have multiple cases to keep the people that are all positive cases together,” Greiner said, “and also still have the same group of staff working with those cases all the time. And, not rotating staff between groups of patients that are positive and groups of patients that are negative.”

Greiner said his office has been working closely with Riverbend leaders. He suspects that a staff member brought COVID-19 into Riverbend three weeks ago, but they are not 100% sure. He said the large cluster of cases at Riverbend was due to a “confluence of bad circumstances” including 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.

When told via email that the family wants more information, Cory Schulte, Riverbend's executive director, asked KCUR to share his contact information with them and said he'd be happy to to speak with them. 

"I would welcome the opportunity to respond to and resolve any issue they may be having," he wrote.

The worst part for Donna, said Ova, is that she is not able to go to the dining room to sit with her friends during meals because all of the people with COVID-19 are being fed at their beds. Smart and sociable, Donna is also a particular person, and she’s been making her own bed and cleaning her own bathroom, Ova said. But she’s enjoying looking out at the gardens and all the blooming flowers, she said.

“She made it sound like she’s perfectly fine. That’s how she is, though,” Ova said, adding that Donna has a cough but her temperature is normal.  

Debbie Ova and her husband Wayne, who is pastor at Faith Baptist Church in Osawatomie, are worried because they’ve heard on the news that there is a staff shortage at Riverbend.

“We want to be there and see her and we can’t be there,” Ova said. “It’s kinda hard.”

Mostly, they wish they had more information from Riverbend.

“Family should have the right to know,” she said. “When you can’t go up to see them, you really trust the information to come from you from the facility.”

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

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.