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‘It’s like my mom never existed’: Coronavirus at Charles County nursing home leaves 35 dead — and families with questions

The call from the nursing home that so many family members fear these days came shortly after midnight April 10 for Rosa Hernandez: Your mother is having trouble breathing.

Rosa Inguanzo was rushed to the hospital, where she was tested for the coronavirus. It was positive, and Inguanzo died later that morning.

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The 90-year-old former teacher had lived at Sagepoint Senior Living Services in La Plata, where, according to the state, 34 residents and one staffer have succumbed to the virus, more than in any other nursing home in Maryland. Hernandez said she called Sagepoint to let it know that her mother and namesake had the virus and died. She said she was met with silence.

“What hurts me the most is I have yet to hear from them — not a word,” she said. “It’s like my mom never existed. It’s so heartbreaking. That was her home.”

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The number of deaths at Sagepoint has alarmed many in Southern Maryland. Throughout the state, where nursing home residents make up more than half of the COVID-19 deaths, some family members’ grief is mixed with questions about whether more could have been done to protect this elderly, vulnerable population.

In and around La Plata, a town of about 9,500 that is the seat of Charles County, the deaths have touched many.

“Worried and shocked and bewildered — you pick the word,” said state Sen. Arthur Ellis, who represents Charles County. “That’s really staggering. Those are family members, members of the community. It’s really heartbreaking.”

Ellis said he has been working with county and state officials as well as Sagepoint and other senior living facilities in Charles County to find out what they need.

Sagepoint issued a statement Wednesday afternoon saying it had complied with all state and federal guidance and tested all its residents in early April. On Wednesday, Gov. Larry Hogan ordered universal testing of nursing home residents and staff.

Calling the residents “our family members” and their deaths “devastating,” Sagepoint President and CEO Andrea Dwyer said in the prepared statement that the facility had been aggressive and proactive in instituting measures to protect its residents.

“It’s important to remember that this happened to our facility,” she said. “It is not something we caused. It’s something that happened to us. And we have done our very best to manage in this devastating pandemic.”

Dwyer said “the oldest and most vulnerable residents” live in facilities like Sagepoint, where she said the average age is 89 years old and 84% of residents would qualify for end-of-life palliative care.

Nonetheless, the deaths unsettled this small community.

“It’s not a large county,” said Reuben B. Collins II, president of the Charles County Commission. “You know a lot of the families and the individuals that were there.”

Collins’ brother-in-law had lived at Sagepoint until he fell ill with respiratory problems in March. After hospitals told the family there was nothing more they could do for him, he lived his final days with the Collins family before dying at the end of last month. The family wonders whether he had the virus, because he had not been tested, Collins said.

He said Sagepoint sought county and state guidance early, and that officials would continue to support the nursing home as it addressed the outbreak.

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Tammy Semega, whose father lives at Sagepoint, said the staff seems short-handed, and that’s affecting the residents’ well-being. Her father, Michael Fanase, had been a “jolly” person who loved to sing and now when she video chats with him, he is always in bed and seems to look at her blankly, she said.

“He has a hard time eating. You have to sit with him and prompt him," said Semega, who lives in La Plata. “They don’t have the time to sit there and feed them. He’s lost 30 pounds in a 2-, 2½-week period."

They’ve promised her they will get him in a chair more often and feed him, she said.

“You don’t want your loved ones to be in a situation where you can’t help them,” she said.

Michael Fanase celebrating his 91st birthday in February at Sagepoint Senior Living Services, which has had more coronavirus deaths than any other nursing home in the state, including his former roommate. His daughter Tammy Semega said he tested positive for the virus but has had mostly mild symptoms, although she worries he has lost weight from not eating and seems to spend most of his time in bed.
Michael Fanase celebrating his 91st birthday in February at Sagepoint Senior Living Services, which has had more coronavirus deaths than any other nursing home in the state, including his former roommate. His daughter Tammy Semega said he tested positive for the virus but has had mostly mild symptoms, although she worries he has lost weight from not eating and seems to spend most of his time in bed.

Semega said her father, an Air Force veteran who turned 91 in February and has dementia, tested positive for the coronavirus but seems to have only mild, intermittent symptoms. His roommate had been positive, something discovered some weeks back when he was taken to the hospital for another condition, she said. That man died earlier in April.

Earlier testing and separation would have prevented the virus from “spreading from one resident to another,” said Semega, adding that the staff also should have been tested and provided with adequate protective gear.

Joyce Riggs, Sagepoint’s vice president for development, said there were not enough tests available initially for all residents plus staff. Staff who needed testing because of symptoms or exposure were told to call their primary care provider, she said.

Additionally, Riggs said, it has been “challenging” to acquire protective gear, something hospitals also are experiencing. But Sagepoint followed Centers for Disease Control and Protection guidelines, which were relaxed to accommodate short supplies during the pandemic, loosening previous standards and allowing for reuse under certain circumstances of masks and other formerly disposable protective equipment.

In statements on its website, Sagepoint — like state and county health officials — has said privacy laws limited what it could release about the outbreak.

On Monday, however, the state reversed itself and decided to release specific numbers of cases and deaths for all senior living facilities. That data, released Tuesday and updated Wednesday, showed Sagepoint had 129 cases and 35 deaths. They involved 97 residents and 32 staffers; the deaths include one staffer.

Sagepoint said that as of Wednesday, 96 of 146 residents tested positive, of whom 33 died. One staff member also died, Sagepoint said.

Riggs said she could not explain the discrepancy.

“We can only report what we know,” she told The Baltimore Sun in an emailed response to questions. “We have been given no explanation from the State of Maryland as to how they have arrived at the number they posted.”

The nursing home learned March 30 that one of its residents had contracted the coronavirus. The resident was diagnosed with COVID-19 while being treated for another condition at a hospital.

Sagepoint notified staff and family members and instituted CDC recommendations for using protective equipment and screening of staff members’ temperatures, as well as checking on residents’ respiration, Dwyer said in a statement. The nursing home already had limited visitation after the governor issued guidance to all nursing homes March 10.

For the Inguanzo family, losing visitation was hard. Hernandez quit her job as a physical therapist so she could visit her mother daily. She said her mother, a native of Cuba who had degrees in Spanish literature and taught when she lived in Puerto Rico, suffered from dementia and other health problems.

Rosa Inguanzo, a resident of Sagepoint Senior Living Services in Charles County's La Plata, died April 10 after testing positive for the COVID-19 illness caused by the coronavirus.
Rosa Inguanzo, a resident of Sagepoint Senior Living Services in Charles County's La Plata, died April 10 after testing positive for the COVID-19 illness caused by the coronavirus.(HANDOUT)

Inguanzo came to live with Hernandez and her husband, Edgardo, in Waldorf in 2005. But after fracturing a vertebra in July 2018, she stopped walking, her daughter said, and they moved her to Sagepoint.

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On April 5, Hernandez said, Sagepoint told her Inguanzo was taken to the hospital because her blood pressure was low but after it stabilized she returned to Sagepoint. She said she called the nursing home twice a day after that to monitor her condition and was told her mother was doing well.

But Hernandez said her mother looked weak during their last FaceTime call that week.

“She wasn’t herself,” Hernandez said. “She was looking at the phone, she didn’t say much, and I knew the situation was getting bad.”

After midnight early Friday morning, April 10, she received the call about her mother returning to the University of Maryland Charles Regional Medical Center, where she would die several hours later.

Hernandez said the residents and staff should have been tested as soon as the first case emerged March 30.

From then on, the crisis quickly intensified. According to Sagepoint’s timeline released Wednesday, officials began planning to test all residents; that was done April 6.

“As of the date of the universal testing, we had six known diagnosed cases,” the timeline said. “The testing resulted in 79 positive cases proving the asymptomatic spread of this virus. We believe we have saved lives because of what we did.”

Riggs said the facility initially had trouble getting adequate supplies to test as many people as it wanted. It has been a common complaint throughout the outbreak, with everyone from Hogan to medical experts saying they have not been able to procure adequate testing supplies.

“We have supported universal testing of all residents,” Sagepoint said in a statement late Tuesday, “and proactively fought hard to make testing happen with little support from any local or state agencies."

It took several days before Sagepoint received the "finalized” test result for its residents. They arrived April 10, the day Inguanzo died.

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