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Investigations Into Deadly COVID-19 Toll In Kansas City, Kansas, Focused On Senior Care Facilities

Julie Denesha
KCUR 89.3
A sign supporting staff members was posted last week on the lawn of the Riverbend Post Acute Rehabilitation facility in Kansas City, Kansas.

The latest front for public health officials battling COVID-19 in the Kansas City area is Wyandotte County health care facilities, where investigations are ongoing at several locations.

Dr. Allen Greiner, the county’s chief medical officer, said Friday that there are more clusters than just those they were investigating last week. The worst one, at Riverbend Post Acute Rehabilitation, as of Sunday has 110 cases, with 12 deaths.

“We have additional clusters in health care facilities,” Greiner said. “That concerns us greatly.”

Wyandotte County, with 315 coronavirus cases, has the largest number in Kansas, according to state data posted Saturday. Starting Monday, the Unified Government will begin offering expanded public testing every day from 2-5 p.m. at the public health department at 619 Ann Avenue.

On both the east and west coasts, where the coronavirus erupted earlier than here, nursing homes have been among the hardest hit by the virus. In Seattle, where 200 people have died, the problem was limited testing. Nearly 2,000 people have died in New York-area homes, thanks to the older, often-sick residents, understaffing and shortages of personal protective gear.

Across the U.S., more than 2,100 nursing homes and other senior facilities have been affected, killing more than 2,300 people, according to a survey by the Wall Street Journal.

The large clusters at nursing care facilities in Wyandotte County appear to be caused by a number of problems, including long incubation times for people who are asymptomatic, a lag in test results and a lack of personal protective equipment for staff.

How the facilities’ leaders and public health officials responded to the first cases in Kansas City, Kansas, also reveals a lot.

Greiner pointed to the first case found at Life Care Center of Kansas City, where a man in his 70s died March 11. His autopsy revealed he was positive for the virus, which they believe he contracted somewhere in the community, so officials tested people regardless of whether they were suspected of having COVID-19.

“In that nursing home, 85 individuals, most of whom were asymptomatic, were tested and they all came back negative,” he said. “So we really dodged a bullet with that initial case we had in the county.”

At Riverbend, the virus quickly took hold, in part, because of a lag in getting test results and long incubation periods of the virus, Greiner said. Both symptomatic and asymptomatic people at Riverbend were tested, he said.

“We believe that this cluster of cases arose during an incubation period when individuals had no idea that they were infected and because of the close quarters there and the conditions of the individuals there. it spread rapidly,” Greiner said.

The three largest clusters in Wyandotte County include church groups and health care facilities, Greiner said.

“We regret that we didn’t take steps earlier to work with these communities,” he said, “but as is very clear from the scientific evidence, we’re learning things every day with COVID-19.”

Riverbend, where the virus is believed to have been brought in by a staff member, moved to a“fully COVID-19 positive” response on Friday, Cory Schulte, Riverbend’s executive director, wrote in a press release.

“This approach allows us to focus on clinical interventions rather than testing and resident movement within the building,” he wrote. “We can deliver recovery-oriented care, with the goal of facilitating our patients’ return to baseline in a shorter period of time.”

Staff at Riverbend are working 16-hour days, seven days a week, Greiner said, and the state emergency management system is trying to find additional resources for the facility.

Last Monday, Dr. Lee Norman, secretary of the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, said there were 11 COVID-19 clusters in the state, three of which were connected to church gatherings. The remaining were “mostly skilled nursing facilities, memory care units,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported on public testing requirements.

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.

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.