By Mary Claire Molloy – Special to The Bloomingtonian
The day after she died, her belongings were scattered in the nursing home parking lot.
Sharon Shields’ personal items were dumped on the ground or tossed into the family vehicle by staff, laissez-faire. A rainbow collection of night gowns — red, purple, blue, and peach — were in a bag on the pavement. Mother’s day presents and Christmas gifts were among the rubble.
Only one staff member said, “Sorry for your loss.” The rest were quiet as they got the job done.
Her niece stared at the discarded remnants of her aunt’s life. To her, it was one more example of Golden Living’s disregard for residents and their families.
The nursing home hardest hit in Monroe County continues to receive criticism from family members and staff for a lack of transparency and failing to contain the outbreak.
“Golden Living killed my aunt,” Morgan Mitchell would later say. “They didn’t do anything to prevent this.”
As the novel coronavirus spreads through the United States, nursing homes have become the perfect breeding ground for outbreaks: the quick transmission of the virus, coupled with the high concentration of elderly and at-risk residents, has proven deadly. The New York Times reported that 43% of U.S. coronavirus deaths are linked to nursing homes.
Families cannot visit their loved ones in isolation, and must rely on facilities for communication about the virus. New guidelines from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid require nursing homes to disclose coronavirus cases and deaths to residents and their designated representatives, and to the CDC. When any case is confirmed, families are to be notified by 5 p.m. the next day. Nursing homes also must report cumulative totals to patients and families at least weekly and after every new case.
The Bloomingtonian first reported in May that families of residents from Golden LivingCenter in Bloomington were left in the dark about a coronavirus outbreak at the facility that had already infected at least 25 people.
Elaine Guinn received a call from Golden Living that her father had been moved to a new room on May 23. It took multiple phone calls and at least six days for her to learn that Elmer Guinn was presumed positive for coronavirus after his roommate tested positive.
Her experience sparked an outpouring of stories from other families of residents, who only learned their loved ones were living inside a coronavirus outbreak through The Bloomingtonian’s reporting.
Judy Lucas, 68, said she never received daily updates from the facility and called multiple times a day to try to get new information. Her husband, Eric Lucas, who has lung cancer and COPD, was moved into a quarantine section in May at the facility after developing a cough and low oxygen levels. Every time she called, she said, staff reassured her there were no new coronavirus cases. After reading The Bloomingtonian’s article, she learned that 49 residents at Golden Living were presumed positive.
“My concern is in the administration not keeping the families up to date about what’s going on and definitely not being transparent,” said her daughter, Angie Lucas.
An updated database from June 30 on Golden Living’s website, which became public after The Bloomingtonian’s reporting, shows that 99 residents have tested positive during the pandemic and 17 have died. A statement to The Bloomingtonian by Wesley Rogers, the President of Golden LivingCenters said that the Bloomington facility currently has one symptomatic COVID-19 positive patient and five other COVID-positive patients that are “a few days short of the CDC recovery criteria.”
“Overall, 51 positive residents have met the CDC recovery criteria since we identified the first positive resident in May,” the statement says. “Twelve of 20 COVID-19 positive employees have met the CDC recovery criteria and the rest are asymptomatic.”
According to WTHR’s database tracking the spread of coronavirus in Indiana long-term care facilities, Golden Living has the most cases and deaths in Monroe County. No other facility has reported deaths during the pandemic.
“We are grieving the loss of our 17 treasured residents who we comforted during their battle with COVID-19 and we are also striving to minimize its spread. We contributed to the recoveries through our proactive steps to pre-screen staff, visitors and new admissions, limit staff to only our facility, implement facility-wide testing, isolate COVID-19 positive residents, have ample PPE and our overall infection control practices. We extend our most sincere appreciation to the many family members who have exercised great patience and understanding while we kept our primary focus on the health of their loved ones.”
Both Guinn and Lucas said the facility has improved communication about their individual family members, but that overall communication about the spread of COVID-19 in the facility’s population is still lacking.
“What is upsetting to me is not having this information out there… giving the community of Bloomington the impression that they’re safe when they’re not,” Guinn said. “I understand the position they’re in – we’re in the middle of a pandemic and they had a pretty serious outbreak –but I feel hurt that they have been so tight lipped.”
Aaliyah O’Neal, 25, recently quit her job as a CNA at Golden Living after finding out about the coronavirus outbreak. She said she didn’t know they had a hall of positive patients when she got the job. O’Neal has five kids, two of whom have asthma, and did not want to risk exposing her children.
“I don’t think they were properly informing residents and families,” O’Neal said. “They barely told the employees.”
Sharon Shields, 73, was one of the 17 people who died after contracting the coronavirus at Golden LivingCenter in Bloomington.
Her family members have expressed dissatisfaction with Golden Living’s care even before COVID-19. Her niece, Morgan, trained as a CNA at the facility and said she witnessed heartbreaking conditions. Her aunt waited hours for assistance to use the bathroom, and would have to clean up after her own accidents. Morgan’s younger sister, Hailey, would go to the facility every week to do her aunt’s laundry.
“We would’ve taken her out of there if she had lived,” Hailey said.
According to the Indiana State Department of Health’s recent facility report card from March 2020, Golden LivingCenter in Bloomington scored 273 out of 500 possible points—29 points below the average facility ranking. Points are deducted for every deficiency found, which can include substandard quality of care and immediate jeopardy to the health and safety of residents.
Shields, a former beautician, had lung damage and COPD and was taken to the hospital from her room at Golden Living in the middle of the night, struggling to breathe.
Debbie Shields, her sister and designated family representative, said that Golden Living never alerted her to the situation. The first call she got was from the doctor at the emergency room, asking if she had been informed that her sister was at the hospital.
She said she had no idea. For hours.
“You’re kidding,” he said.
Sherry tested positive for coronavirus. From there, the final days.
Shields recalled the doctor issuing one piece of advice about Golden Living:
“I wouldn’t send her back there.”
Hospice was his recommendation.
The family said their final goodbye to Sherry through a big window.
Golden LivingCenters’ PR firm, Trifecta Public Strategies, expressed concern about The Bloomingtonian’s reporting. Spokesperson Kelli Luneborg-Stern wanted to connect The Bloomingtonian with families who had a positive experience with the facility’s care.
Suzanne Zook, 67, has visited her mother at Golden Living nearly every day before the COVID-19 pandemic. She said the facility is doing the best it can despite being underprepared and overwhelmed by the virus.
“My mother has survived it and she will be 93 on Friday,” Zook said. “They have some amazing staff there, they’ve treated them like family.”