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Lack Of Testing, Transparency In North Idaho Nursing Home With COVID-19 Deaths, Families Say

AP Photo/Ted S. Warren

Edna McBride lived at the Life Care Center of Lewiston for about 10 years. She enjoyed gardening and daily afternoon walks. 

“She liked them and they liked her,” said Catherine Voss, McBride’s daughter, of the center’s staff. Voss lives near Phoenix, Ariz., and she said the time her mother spent in the nursing home was largely uneventful. But that changed in late March. 

“What happened next became my nightmare,” she said.

Voss, who first spoke to the Lewiston Tribune, learned from the Life Care Center that a patient tested positive for coronavirus. The center said in a statement that COVID-19 was first discovered in the facility on March 25 and residents and staff were notified by March 26. 

At that point, Voss wasn’t too worried. A few days later, she got a call from a nurse that her mother had a fever. 

“My immediate thought was, ‘Are you going to test her for the COVID virus?’ And their response was, ‘No.’”

The Life Care Center of Lewiston said in a statement on April 17 that it wasn’t able to test all patients who were symptomatic because of limited tests. Staff told Voss they were going to treat McBride as though she had the virus. 

"One of the things that probably haunts me the most is sending her back there."

Life Care Centers of America is a Tennessee-based company that operates more than 200 long-term care facilities. That includes one in Kirkland, Washington, linked to more than two dozen deaths from COVID-19. There are eight centers owned by Life Care in Idaho. 

A few days after the fever came, Voss recalled her mother got a cough. McBride was brought to the hospital for a chest X-ray, where doctors discovered pneumonia in her lungs. It was a small infection, Voss said, but they gave her medication, along with a test for COVID-19, and sent her back to Life Care to wait for the results. 

“One of the things that probably haunts me the most is sending her back there,” Voss said. 

It was April 9, and at the time, she didn’t know how widespread the virus was at the facility. She later learned from reading the Lewiston Tribune that more residents and staff had become infected. As of last week, Life Care of Lewiston said, 14 employees and 34 residents had tested positive, eight residents who tested positive died and 17 total residents died since COVID-19 was first identified in the care center in late March.

The COVID-19 test McBride got at the hospital failed to produce a result, Voss said. It was a battle to get her mother tested again, she recalled, this time at the care center. Then that test failed, too -- the vial leaked, she said. 

Life Care Centers of America wasn’t able to confirm McBride’s second failed test, and said it could not speak to specific patient questions due to patient privacy laws.

Finally, McBride got a third test, about three weeks after her first fever. She had COVID-19.

“The day they called me to tell me that that test was positive was also the day that they told me she'd probably had less than 24 hours to live,” Voss said.

A day and a half later, on April 24, McBride died at age 100. 

Life Care Center of Lewiston said all residents of the facility were eventually tested, when the center got the necessary testing supplies. That was in late April, about a month after the first case there was detected. 

Limited Testing

Testing symptomatic patients in long-term care facilities has been a priority for the CDC and for the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare. Yet, the state health department said in an email that a limited supply of testing swabs and other supplies has meant “local public health districts may not have been able to provide test kits for every long-term care facility resident who was symptomatic.”

Testing overall has been limited in the North Central District, the local public health department that includes Nez Perce County, where Life Care Center of Lewiston is located. Based on data published to the state’s coronavirus website, there have been tests for about eight out of every 1,000 residents in that district. That’s compared to Central District Health, which includes Ada County, where 22 tests have been conducted for every 1,000 residents.


Credit Screenshot by Boise State Public Radio on May 6
This chart on the state's coronavirus website shows when tests were done in the North Central District (PHD2).

Nez Perce County has had 18 deaths due to COVID-19 -- the highest count per resident in the state.

Lack of long-term care data

Last week, Dave Jeppesen, the director of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, said nearly a quarter of the state's long-term care centers have had a staff member or resident test positive for COVID-19, and 29 residents in these centers have died due to COVID-19. At the time, that was about half of the state’s total virus deaths.

Idaho isn’t releasing information about which facilities have outbreaks, but Voss thinks it should be made available to the residents’ families, and to the public.

“I don't think anybody's asking for names. But we're asking for numbers,” she said.

The lack of transparency has come at a cost, she said. If she knew how many residents in the facility had the virus earlier, she might’ve tried to get her mother released to family living in the area.

When Governor Brad Little was asked at a press conference last week why the state isn’t providing these numbers, he said, “Individual protection and privacy is a high priority in Idaho.”

Voss’ family continues to closely watch the obituaries in the Lewiston Tribune because Voss said those give them the best picture about what’s happening inside the Life Care Center.


Find reporter Rachel Cohen on Twitter @racheld_cohen

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As the south-central Idaho reporter, I cover the Magic and Wood River valleys. I also enjoy writing about issues related to health and the environment.