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Fatal Coronavirus Outbreak at Assisted Living Center Is Grim Reminder That Both Residents and Staff Are at Risk

Three Atria Willow Wood residents died from COVID-19. One resident went untested for days before being diagnosed, and his family didn’t learn test results until after his death.

Atria Willow Wood in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. (Matias J. Ocner/Miami Herald)

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Richard Curren and his wife, Sheila, were living out their retirement at Atria Willow Wood, a Fort Lauderdale, Florida, assisted living facility near their daughter and two grandchildren, when he started feeling weak and had trouble breathing.

The former travel agent had suffered from respiratory problems in the past, and, at first, family members weren’t overly concerned.

“He was just sick, and you don’t immediately run to the ER,” said their daughter, Tracy Curren Wieder.

By the early morning of March 16, the burly 77-year-old was gone. He was the first of three residents at Atria Willow Wood to die from the coronavirus.

Four days later, the assisted living facility reported that a second resident died from the disease. The 93-year-old man, whose name was not released, had initially tested negative. And over the weekend, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis confirmed a third death during a briefing with reporters.

Amid heightened fears over the spread of the coronavirus throughout densely populated South Florida, the assisted living facility has become a worrisome hot spot. At least seven residents who were hospitalized tested positive, and results were pending for five others, according to Mike Gentry, senior vice president of care.

“As soon as the Department of Health office in Broward County notified us of a confirmed case in our community, we immediately escalated our safety and infection control protocols and expanded our extensive emergency-scenarios planning,” Gentry said. “Since March 16th, the Department of Health has been on site several times to review our plans and has been supportive of our response and protocols.”

Coronavirus Spreads in Nursing Homes

The Atria Willow Wood outbreak is a grim reminder of the vulnerability of residents and staff in assisted living facilities, nursing homes and other senior care centers, where the virus has been rapidly spreading.

Nationwide, at least 73 nursing homes and senior care centers have reported infections, according to a Washington Post review published Saturday of reports and announcements from states, local media and nursing homes. At least 55 coronavirus deaths can be linked to such facilities, but the number is likely higher, The Post reported.

A deadly outbreak that killed 35 people at a nursing home in Kirkland, Washington, was the first to reveal the havoc the virus could cause in elder care communities, where susceptible residents live in tight quarters and regularly interact with each other, staff members and visitors.

In some states such as Florida, leaders and industry representatives have broadened measures to slow the spread, barring visitors and limiting residents’ interactions. But the cases persist. In New Orleans, five people died after being exposed to the virus at a senior living center. Another 32 people — including 16 residents, 14 staff members and two visitors — were symptomatic after possible exposure at an Ohio assisted living facility.

In Florida, at least 19 long-term care facilities had either suspected or confirmed cases of the virus as of Wednesday, said Mary Mayhew, head of the state’s Agency for Health Care Administration. State leaders have declined to identify the homes, providing only the counties where such exposures were identified, and have not offered more recent information.

Mayhew declined to say whether all residents and staff at the affected homes would be tested.

“When a call is made by a facility, and they are coordinating with their local county health department, there is an immediate effort to support them to ensure that that individual is tested,” Mayhew said at a press conference on Wednesday.

Gov. DeSantis this month suspended all visits to nursing homes and assisted living facilities from family members and friends amid fears that the novel coronavirus could spread at warp speed.

The state has 691 licensed nursing homes, accounting for about 84,448 beds — and another 3,080 licensed assisted living facilities, representing about 106,103 beds.

At a Friday afternoon press briefing in Tallahassee, DeSantis lashed out at administrators of the Fort Lauderdale home, Atria Willow Wood.

“Construction workers, staff and cooks who were not screened were allowed to go and mix with the residents unimpeded,’’ DeSantis said. “That is exactly what you are not supposed to do.”

In a statement, Atria Senior Living disputed the governor’s comments.

“The governor’s comments do not accurately describe our response at our Willow Wood community, including the many steps we have taken to protect the health and safety of our residents and employees,” the statement read. Atria added that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention assured the facility in recent days that it is in compliance.

“They Were Living Their Lives”

Originally from Chicago, the Currens, who were married for 57 years, moved into Atria Willow Wood last year.

“They were living their lives” at the 180-bed home, Wieder said. “And then he got sick.”

Richard and Sheila Curren. Richard died March 16 from COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. (Family photo)

When Curren’s respiratory problems worsened on March 13, the couple called for paramedics, and he was taken to Holy Cross Hospital for evaluation.

Curren’s condition didn’t improve. He was diagnosed with bacterial pneumonia. He was running a fever of 103 degrees. And his body’s oxygen levels were getting dangerously low. Curren was getting fluids intravenously, along with antibiotics. Hospital staff inserted a breathing tube.

When Wieder asked to have him tested for COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus, the doctor declined, saying he didn’t meet the criteria.

“She said he was not a candidate,” said Wieder, 50. “She kept asking if he’d been to China.”

By late March 15, doctors had reconsidered. Curren was tested, and then moved over to isolation, where medical staff wore protective garb and masks.

Around 10 p.m. that day, the results were back. Wieder said hospital staff called the health department and the assisted living facility to report the positive test results. But they didn’t call her family.

“Six hours later, he died,” she said. “At that point, they did call me.”

The hospital said that Richard Curren had gone into cardiac arrest at about 4 a.m., Wieder said. “They said they tried for 35 minutes to revive him. ‘And, by the way, are you aware he tested positive for COVID?’”

“God only knows how many infections were caused by not putting him in isolation and testing him immediately,” said Wieder, who oversees laboratory research at the University of Miami, and published an article on lab safety this past week in Clinical Lab Manager, an online magazine.

Broward health officials urged Wieder and her mother to get tested. But both women, along with one of Wieder’s children, were isolating themselves at home to protect others.

Wieder is now tasked with preparing her father’s funeral.

“We’re going to do something very private and very meaningful,” she said.

Carol Marbin Miller is deputy investigations editor at the Miami Herald. Bailey LeFever covers local government for the Miami Herald.

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