REDONDO BEACH, Calif. – Each morning, Linda Chen knocks on the door of her 87-year-old father’s room and helps him check his vitals.
He sits patiently and quietly as she takes his temperature, measures his blood pressure, and records his weight.
“Looking good dad,” she remarks at his vitals. “I hope I have his genes.”
It’s hard to believe looking at him now that just two months ago Jimmy Chen was battling COVID-19.
When he started showing symptoms of the virus while living at the Kensington Redondo Beach, an upscale assisted living and memory care center for seniors, Linda Chen and her family decided immediately to remove him.
“My heart was breaking, my dad, he stopped eating and that was the first sign I knew something was wrong,” Chen said. “We suited up in our PPE and we transported my dad personally to UCLA and that’s where he stayed for seven days.”
But there was little relief for Chen and her family. Her mother, Lilien, was also at Kensington and also tested positive for COVID-19. But she suffers from advanced Alzheimer’s disease so Chen said they couldn’t safely remove her from the facility.
She and her dad haven’t seen Lilien since March. Chen can only check on her via the message service Slack which is used by Kensington to stay in touch with resident families.
“My mom has funny bruises that they’ve observed and I can’t go in and see it,” Chen said. “I’m angry and sad and all sorts of roller coaster emotions because I can’t see my mom.”
She feels lucky both her parents survived the virus, but she thinks Kensington initially did too little to prevent the spread and now is going too far in preventing her from seeing her mom.
“We went from one end as if we’re completely cavalier, we’re America, we can’t possibly can’t get this. We’re bigger, stronger than this. And then all of a sudden we go the entire opposite way. We’re going to completely lockdown, kids can’t go out, no don’t go out and be in the sun. It’s ridiculous,” Chen said.
She and other families have been demanding more transparency.
We asked Kensington Redondo Beach for an interview and updated health data but the facility forwarded our request to an outside communications and crisis management firm, Andrea Obston Marketing Communications.
Obston offered the following statement on behalf of Kensington:
“Throughout the outbreak, we have worked closely with the LA County Department of Public Health and the Department of Social Services to ensure that our protocols met or exceeded the requirements of those agencies and the CDC. The outbreak was officially closed by Acute Communicable Disease Control at the LA County Department of Health on May 8th. We retain all of the protocols that were put into place during the outbreak.”
The company would not release the total number of COVID-19 deaths and cases among residents and staff, but the LA Times reported back in April that Kensington Redondo Beach had more than 40 cases in the midst of its outbreak.
Mysteriously, the facility no longer appears on the LA County Department of Public Health’s list of skilled nursing facilities and institutional settings that experienced cases.
We tried to ask LA County about the omission but haven’t heard back.
It’s a source of concern for Mike Dark, a staff attorney for California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform, because about half of all COVID-19 deaths in the state are associated with elder care facilities. And that is based on data the public currently has access to.
“Those lists are not reliable and should give no one comfort,” Dark said, referring to both state and local health department data on numbers of cases and deaths. “These lists so far have been absolutely useless.”
Dark said he has seen several cases of senior living facilities underreporting or refusing to turn over case data to health agencies. He said the pandemic has also halted inspections and barred visitors, which makes holding the facilities accountable much more difficult.
“The issue isn’t whether the rules exist. It’s that there’s no enforcement of these rules and no one seems to have the political will or the appetite to make sure that it does happen,” Dark said.
The LA County Board of Supervisors is hoping to take a step in the right direction by appointing an inspector general to oversee nursing homes and investigate the COVID-19 response at places like Kensington Redondo Beach.
The board voted unanimously Tuesday morning to create the new position by July.
But Linda Chen says she’s skeptical.
“I think the concept is good. But the devil is always in the details, so how is he incentivized? Is he going to be on the dark side or is he going to be on the light side?”
Chen said her recent experience made it clear to her that the nursing home industry needs to be put under a magnifying glass.
“This is the most vulnerable of the population. This is the population that needs more TLC, all the extra love and care as we send them off to heaven. It can’t be all about the money,” Chen said.