This story was co-published with the PBS series Frontline.
The voice on the message started out calm but soon faltered. Natasha Roland wanted to report what happened to her father at the Queens Adult Care Center, a home for some 350 low-income elderly and mentally ill adults that I’d described as an epidemiologist’s nightmare in a story the previous week.
“They had been telling me since March that they didn’t have any virus cases,” Roland said, her words quickening. “They were telling me that my father was OK. When I went there to get my dad, he hadn’t eaten in a week. My dad was dying. He couldn’t move.”
Then her voice caught, sobs overcame her, and I felt a pang of panic myself.
“They were not giving him his medication. My dad is now at Presbyterian hospital. He tested positive for coronavirus,” she said. “He is 82 years old. He is a diabetic. He has lung disease.”
As the coronavirus races through nursing homes and assisted living facilities across the country, many desperate family members are finding themselves like Roland, unable to learn the truth about what is happening inside.
In story after story, the owners of beleaguered facilities — because of greed, incompetence or fear — have kept the reality of circumstances murky or misleading. Many state health departments nationwide are refusing to provide up-to-date, or in some cases any, facility-specific numbers on COVID-19 deaths or infections to the family members of residents, to journalists or even to local politicians. And in New York, which has just begun releasing some information, state officials are relying on nursing homes to accurately report deaths and infections.
As a result, family members and local officials are turning into detectives and activists, forming alliances to track down clues about what’s happening inside the homes and what, if anything, state health departments are doing about it.
The calamity at the Queens home has become particularly dangerous in part because of its unusual mix of frail, elderly residents and people with mental illness, who are all free to come and go as they please. I’d written about the home in 2018, and I started asking about it again in late March. By then the virus was already spreading inside. Experts predicted the worst.
Since my April 2 story, those predictions appear to be coming true. But the New York Department of Health, which oversees the facility, won’t release specific numbers. New York City Councilman Daniel Dromm said he was told by the city’s Health Department that as of April 15, a dozen residents had died and 44 have tested positive for the virus. He said he has asked for an update from the city three times since but hasn’t received one.
At least one worker at the facility and several residents estimate that nearly twice as many are dead and many more show symptoms but have not been tested. Residents also say that the facility is continuing to accept new occupants even as the virus infects more people inside it.
As I was reporting this story, the Queens Adult Care Center hired crisis communications consultant Hank Sheinkopf, who, on April 21, argued that no one at the center had died of the coronavirus, because no one had succumbed to the disease on the grounds of the facility. He would not say how many died in the hospital.
“Is there any other facility in the country that tracks what happens to their residents after they leave?” he said. “I don’t think that’s fair.”
Dromm said he got involved after hearing from a family member of a resident, who wanted to know how many deaths and infections occurred among residents. But he has found his calls for the state to investigate essentially ignored.
“I was shocked that they didn’t respond to an elected official’s emails with some urgency,” Dromm said. “I still am not sure whether they have actually visited the site or not, and that concerns me deeply.”
The state’s lack of action, he said, “is going to cost lives.”
He shared an April 17 email from the Governor’s office saying that the Health Department was “aware of the issues being raised” and that it had contacted the Queens center administrators, who “subsequently issued an alert to families and friends of residents regarding COVID-19 status at QACC.” On Wednesday, Dromm’s office said the Health Department promised to investigate the home this week. The health department would not confirm whether it had done so.
Sheinkopf, the communications consultant, said that the Queens center has spent 25 hours making a “manual call” to every “listed family member in the facility.” He did not say what prompted the round of calls or what was said on them.
On April 22, two relatives I spoke to said they received an automated phone call, informing them that one resident had tested positive for coronavirus at a hospital the previous day and they would be notified if their family member was “impacted.”
The call has done little to assuage what they say is a gut-wrenching predicament: They know the virus is raging through the facility — and hear that much of the staff has reduced care for the residents out of fear or sickness. But even if they could bring their loved ones home — and manage their medical issues — they risk their own health and that of their families. Moving can also be traumatizing, especially for those residents who may have lived in the center for decades.
“I want to remove my brother from the facility,” said Bruce Schoengood, whose brother is a longtime resident and has schizophrenia and whose roommate died of COVID-19. “But I only want to remove him if he is negative or if he has the antibodies and he is now immune to it. I don’t know if I can get him tested. I want to remove him until this blows over, but then I don’t know if they will fill his bed there.”
In an April 12 statement, the Queens Adult Care Center said it is taking “extensive precautions to ensure the well-being of each of its residents and employees,” providing protective equipment and “encouraging social distancing amongst residents.” It said the staff checks on residents multiple times a day and looks out for “even the slightest of potential symptoms” to identify those who may have contracted the virus in order to get them proper medical care.
Citing privacy restrictions, the home would not comment on individual cases, but it said that Roland’s account of what happened to her father was “baseless,” and that its “staff routinely contacts family members” and is always available to answer their questions.
“To suggest otherwise would be a misrepresentation of our actions,” the statement said.
Family members and residents who spoke to ProPublica dispute that claim.
Roland’s experience is especially distressing for anyone who has a family member living in such a facility. Ultimately, she had to execute a heart-pounding, dead-of-night rescue of her father, Willie Roland, after she said the administration lied to her for weeks about his health and the conditions of the home.
In a Skype interview, Natasha Roland, 35, said that when the coronavirus landed in New York, she was immediately concerned for her father, who’d lived as an assisted living resident in the home for more than a decade. By late March, it became clear that he was in the center of a hot spot. Elmhurst Hospital, which has made national news with its line of sick patients winding down the sidewalk, is just a block from the home. The neighborhood now has one of the highest concentrations of coronavirus cases in the city.
On March 26 or 27, she said she called Michael Younger, the administrator of the home, and asked if anyone there had COVID-19. If there was a risk, she said she told him, she’d come get her father. Younger, she said, told her not to worry. Only one person had the virus and he’d likely contracted it at Elmhurst, where he was now being treated.
But, as ProPublica reported, by then at least one resident had already died of the virus. By March 31, at least six residents had tested positive, according to the owner of the home and his lawyer. Workers were also calling out sick, either because they had coronavirus or were scared they might get it.
Roland said Younger did not disclose any of that information to her.
The next week, Roland said, Younger continued to say there were no coronavirus cases. But her father and his 63-year-old companion at the home, Annetta King-Simpson, began to complain of what sounded like symptoms. She had diarrhea. His legs ached. Both felt weak. King-Simpson told Roland that someone on her floor had in fact tested positive.
In emailed questions, ProPublica asked specifically about Younger’s interactions with Roland and other relatives of Queens center residents. The facility did not respond to those questions.
Roland said she tried to see her dad, but the facility was under state instruction not to allow visitors. On Friday, April 3, she said she spoke to a nurse in the medication room, who repeated Younger’s message that there were no cases.
But the following night, Roland said, a worker she was friendly with finally told her the truth: Many of the aides who helped people like her dad were petrified. They’d all but stopped going into the rooms of residents. Instead, they came to work and locked themselves in an office all day. Food trays were simply left outside in the hall.
“She was like, ‘Girl, I don’t want to lose my job, but look, you need to get your father out of here,’” Roland said the worker told her.
Then, she said, the worker began to cry, saying she was scared to be at work herself but needed to earn money for her family — whom she’d quarantined herself away from.
Ambulances were at the home constantly, the worker told her, and the administration wasn’t saying which residents were sick. Meanwhile, residents continued to wander in and out, even panhandling among the sick patients waiting outside the hospital.
In an interview, the worker recalled telling Roland about the dire circumstances in the home, but said she did not advise her to immediately remove her dad or that aides were not attending to residents.
Panicked, Roland began making arrangements for her father to come home that Sunday, April 5, but the staff said his medications wouldn’t be ready until the following day. That same night, shortly after 11 p.m., King-Simpson called and said her father had stumbled up to her room in a stupor, barely able to breathe.
Roland and her brother jumped in separate cars from their homes, instructing King-Simpson not to let an ambulance take their dad to Elmhurst Hospital. If he didn’t have the virus, they didn’t want him getting it there.
When Roland arrived around 12:15 a.m., she said a staffer told her she was not allowed in but then added in a murmur, “Go get your dad.” Roland, wearing a surgical mask and gloves, strode past the fluorescent lights of the lobby to her father’s first-floor room.
She found him slumped against the door, gaunt, his face drawn and eyeballs bulging as he struggled to breathe beneath a surgical mask crookedly attached across his face. King-Simpson clung to him. Garbage overflowed from trash cans. The floors, Roland said, were filthy.
“I was in shock,” Roland said. “I thought my father was going to die that second. This is how bad he looked. … And they were allowing my father to lay there and die because they didn’t want to go in and check to see if he is showing symptoms for this virus.”
He looked, Roland said, “like a ghost.”
With King-Simpson helping, Roland said she half-carried her father out to her car as he leaned on his walker. She and her brother rushed him to New York-Presbyterian Hospital in Manhattan, where he went for regular checkups.
The doctors there, Roland said, told her she saved his life. Her dad’s medical charts show that he’d lost 15 pounds since his last visit less than a month earlier. He has tested positive for COVID-19. After several days hooked up to an oxygen tank, he stabilized and is now recovering in a rehabilitation facility, learning, Roland said, “how to breathe again.”
The morning after the rescue, King-Simpson collapsed on the floor of the adult home. She was later taken to the makeshift hospital at the Javits Center.
Reached by phone, she said aides had stopped coming into Willie Roland’s room about two and a half weeks before he was hospitalized. She said she had been taking care of him, feeding him and taking his blood pressure with her personal device.
“They were ignoring him because they suspected he had it,” she said. “He started to get sick three weeks ago.” King-Simpson’s sister, the Rev. Angela Harris, would like to take her in, but she wants some assurance that she is free of the virus first.
“Right now I have my grandchildren that come in and out of my house and I can’t subject them to it,” she said. “I shouldn’t subject myself either,” said Harris, 67, who serves at Elmendorf Reformed Church in Harlem.
Other relatives of center residents said that they, too, were misled about conditions inside the Queens home.
Some, like the Rolands, believe the home should be shut down.
“I was so angry when I read that [ProPublica] story because it was like, ‘Oh my God, they lied to me,’” Roland said. “They knew that this virus was in there. They knew people tested positive. Why would they lie to me?”
After her father began to recover, she called Younger again, angrily, telling him she was worried about other people there, including the staff.
“He hung up on me,” she said.
I tried to talk to Younger about his interactions with Roland. But it was Sheinkopf who returned my call. He said the home was responsive to Roland’s concerns.
“We have spoken to Ms. Roland on many occasions in March and April and we have always answered her questions,” he said, adding that the staff initially offered to take her father to the hospital, but he refused to go. If Roland’s father didn’t want to go to Elmhurst Hospital, Sheinkopf said, they would have taken him somewhere else.
Other families also complained that the center has not been clear about the circumstances inside the home.
Schoengood said he is upset no one told him, especially since the facility knows he is deeply involved in his brother’s care.
“The only information we get is anecdotally through him,” he said, referring to his brother. “The administration gives us zero. Nothing whatsoever.”
Schoengood said he found out the roommate had died during a casual phone chat with his brother on April 1. The roommate had died roughly a week before that conversation. Schoengood said that when he contacted Younger, Younger told him it was “an oversight” that he hadn’t been told about the death.
Afterward, Schoengood wrote to Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Bill de Blasio, Dromm, The New York Times, a local ABC affiliate and a member of Congress.
Last week, the Health Department sent me a statement that did not answer any questions for this story, saying only that “all long-term care facilities should follow all State Department of Health guidance, keep residents and their families informed about the situation with respect to COVID-19 in the facility and cancel communal dining and other activities that bring residents together without adequate spacing.”
King-Simpson’s niece, Sequoia King, 31, compared the response to coronavirus at the Queens center with that of the Schulman and Schachne Institute for Nursing and Rehabilitation, where her 61-year-old father lives in Brooklyn.
Prior to the automated call, she said the Queens center had “sent no communication out to families” while her father’s facility has “sent two or three different letters telling us how they are handling meals and social distancing and things like that.”
Another woman wrote to ProPublica to say her aunt had died at the Queens center on April 2, the day our story was published. “She constantly complained and nothing seemed to improve. I miss her so much and keep wishing someone called to say they identified the wrong person,” she wrote. “My heart breaks more and more every day. It’s hard knowing she died alone, that I couldn’t see her.”
Roland now wonders if her father made a bad bet on the Queens facility from the start.
She remembers how people stole clothes, cellphones and other things out of her dad’s room over the years. He hated the food, which she called “garbage.” She said he was once attacked by another resident, breaking his hip.
But the home had its comforts, like King-Simpson, who lived two floors above him. And her father preferred the independence the center offered him over something more restrictive, like a nursing home.
Of course, like almost all residents at the center and those in hundreds of homes like it throughout the state, he didn’t have many options.
He still doesn’t. Neither does King-Simpson, who has decided to move back into the home in part to look out for her friends who still live there.
As for his daughter, she spends time praying for her father and hoping he won’t decide to go back to the only home he has known for more than a decade. But what bothers Roland most is whether she waited too long to act.
“I’m like, did I mess this up?” she said. “They were telling me my dad is OK. They were telling me that my father is safe. But what’s so crazy about this is that my father would have died.”