While no one will likely know how the coronavirus entered Accordius Health nursing home in Harrisonburg, several residents’ family members and employees say it likely spread following a hallway dance party in early April.
Several employees, who requested anonymity on fears of being fired, said dozens of residents flocked into the hallway to participate in the dance.
Photographs on Accordius Health’s Facebook page on April 6 confirmed the party with the statement: “Social distancing has challenged our staff to become very creative to incorporate our resident’s love of music and dancing into our activities, but the [staff] hit [this] dance party out of the ballpark.”
While the post stated there was sufficient social distance, the employees said it wasn’t good enough with dozens of residents in hallways. Additionally, while employees wore PPE, known as personal protective equipment, residents did not. The pictures posted to the Facebook page confirm the claim.
On April 13, a concerned employee, Kanesha Hamilton, told the Daily News-Record there was an outbreak at the facility. She also voiced concerns of the dance party and lack of proper PPE.
Five days later, after multiple inquiries from the Daily News-Record, North Carolina-based Accordius Health released a statement announcing that 81 residents at the 97-bed facility — and 12 of 35 staff members —tested positive for COVID-19.
As of Friday, 21 of the residents have died.
Repeated calls over the past two weeks to Accordius Health have not been returned.
Ruth Simmers-Domzalski’s mother-in-law, Mary Domzalski, was among those dancing in the photographs. The 88-year-old former nurse and Broadway resident died of COVID-19 on April 20.
“They weren’t even wearing masks,” said Simmers-Domzalski. “It sickens me. They didn’t take heed to the warning. To me, they didn’t care. It’s like running cattle through a slaughterhouse.”
Bridgette Barbour’s 71-year-old mother, Alberta Barbour, participated in the dance party, too.
The daughter recalled her mother telling her she was going to a “shindig.”
Days later, the mother tested positive for COVID-19. On April 19, she died from the virus.
“It’s probably where it did [spread],” Barbour said. “They had no gloves and no masks. The nursing home failed us.”
Several family members said they’ve had a lot of problems with the facility both before the emergence of the coronavirus and after.
Federal health inspection reports back up the family members’ claims.
In March 2019, the facility was cited for 22 violations, including failing to provide and implement an infection prevention and control program. The facility was fined roughly $13,000.
The report by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services noted employees failed to use proper hand-washing techniques during a medication pass-and-pour observation.
The report also stated that a resident who tested positive for the flu was found outside of their room without wearing a mask.
It’s unclear if any of those measures were addressed before the pandemic started. At the time of the review, the facility was owned by Curis of Harrisonburg.
In the last few years, the facility’s name has changed from Avante to Curis to its current name, Accordius Health, in July.
A December report from the same federal agency shows the facility, under Accordius Health, got worse.
“Since the company took over, this place has gone from bad to worse,” one resident told an investigator. “There aren’t enough staff here.”
The report stated several examples of neglect at the home, including providing adequate showers. One resident stated he went a week without a shower.
Another stated that he was told to go to the bathroom in his pants.
Other residents reported waiting 30 minutes or more for staff to respond when they hit their call bells. Barbour said her mother complained to her about the response time.
“When she would ring the buzzer, it would take them forever to come,” Barbour said. “She had fallen one time. She had hit the button, but no one came. A CNA walking past saw my mother on the floor. My mother said she had been laying on the floor for a good while.”
Simmers-Domzalski said her mother-in-law experienced similar neglect at the home.
“Her bed sheets were dirty with feces,” she said. “The toilet seat had feces on it. That’s not acceptable.”
Another time, she found her sitting naked on her bed.
Barbour described the home as “filthy,” but like the Domzalski family, she couldn’t afford to move her to a high-end nursing facility.
Simmers-Domzalski also said her mother-in-law had several unexplained injuries during her time there, but her charts never showed them.
“Even if it’s a tiny bruise, they are supposed to mark that,” she said. “They were supposed to contact me on everything, but they didn’t.”
She said they failed to contact her when Mary Domzalski was sent to the hospital for back fractures.
“Nobody knew how they got there,” Simmers-Domzalski said.
In the federal government’s report, nurses told investigators they needed double the staff they had.
Fast forward to late March, as the virus continued to spread across the country, family members and employees say little was done to protect the roughly 100 residents at the home.
In mid-April, Hamilton told the Daily News-Record she wasn’t provided proper, or enough, personal protective equipment for the situation. She said she had to use the same gown she used on a confirmed COVID-19 patient with a patient who didn’t test positive.
“All of this could have been prevented,” said Hamilton, who has been a CNA for seven years. “We told them over and over and over that we didn’t feel comfortable working there. I’ve never been in the dark so much. It was like we’re figuring it out as we go.”
Barbour said her mother told her she saw nurses and staff sharing gowns and other PPE.
“That’s cross contamination,” Barbour said. “They’re just passing it around.”
As the virus spread through the facility, communication from Accordius Health to the residents’ family members was minimal, at best, family members say.
Numerous family members called the facility begging for updates on their loved ones, only to be hung up on, they said. When family members did get through, they say, no one would give them a straight answer about their loved one’s condition.
“I got so many conflicting stories from them,” Simmers-Domzalski said. “It went all the way up to the day of her death.”
Barbour had a similar experience.
She said she was able to visit her mother by standing outside her room’s window. After the brief visit, her mother took a turn for the worse, but Barbour wasn’t told.
“No one took the initiative to call me,” she said. “No explanation. No apologies. It had me very, very livid.”
Barbour said she’s not sure how she will proceed, but she wants Accordius Health to be held responsible.
“The lack of communication to me, and the rest of the resident’s family, is ridiculous,” Barbour said. “Something needs to be done about it. I’m not going to rest until something is done. If I have to yell it from the rooftop I will. They failed us, and they failed the residents. And the death toll keeps rising.”