Deaths Mount as COVID-19 Outbreak Spreads through Whitefish Care Facility

As of Aug. 28, more than two-dozen residents of long-term care center had tested positive, with five deaths

By Tristan Scott
Whitefish Care and Rehabilitation in Whitefish on August 28, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

On Aug. 7, Larry and Terry Rich celebrated their 27th wedding anniversary through a screened-in window at the Whitefish Care and Rehabilitation Center, Larry resting on his walker’s fold-down seat amid the shrubbery and river rock girding the facility, Terry ensconced in the fluorescent light of her room.

Since Terry’s admission to the facility in July — the result of health complications from a fall — the 74-year-old woman had been prohibited from interacting with the outside world due to the risk of COVID-19 transmissions.

Despite those restrictions, on the occasion of her wedding anniversary, Terry had just one request — bring Chinese takeout.

“So I went over with the white boxes of Chinese food and put them through the mail slot, and I sat down on my walker outside her room and she got her Chinese food and we celebrated our anniversary,” Larry said. “It was nice and as long as I could see her everything was OK.”

Exactly three weeks later, on Aug. 28, Larry learned that his wife had died of complications due to COVID-19, which she contracted during an outbreak at Whitefish Care and Rehabilitation that as of Aug. 28 had infected 41 people, including 27 residents, while claiming the lives of five residents in the past week.

“We extend our sympathies to all loved ones affected by these recent deaths,” said Tamalee St. James Robinson, Interim Health Officer of the Flathead City-County Health Department, in a statement released Friday.

The recent deaths bring the total number of COVID-19 related fatalities in Flathead County up to eight, according to health officials.

According to the facility’s executive director, Reid Crickmore, the outbreak stems from an “asymptomatic person.”

“As of today, we have tested all employees and residents multiple times,” he said on Friday. “Many of these people have had zero symptoms, and some have started to recover, for which we are grateful. Unfortunately, we have had five residents pass away due to COVID-19.”

St. James Robinson said when an outbreak occurs at a long-term care facility, health officials test everyone, including all staff and residents, and continue to test them on a weekly basis.

“If they go two consecutive weeks with no positive cases, that’s the criteria for saying the outbreak is contained,” she said.

In a press release, Crickmore said a lag time in getting test results back from the state has made it difficult to contain the outbreak.

“The two headwinds we continue to face are asymptomatic positive people and the timeliness of lab results, sometimes taking 4-7 days to get these results,” Crickmore said Friday, adding that the facility is undergoing screening and “robust cleaning” as it executes the health department’s mitigation plan.

“Additionally, we continue to stay in contact with families and emergency contacts as we get test results in,” Crickmore added.

For Larry Rich, those updates were few and far between as he struggled to track his wife’s institutionalized care, which began after she fell at home on July 4, resulting in hospitalization at North Valley Hospital in Whitefish. From there, she was transferred to Whitefish Care and Rehabilitation, at which point Rich says his contact with administrative staff was minimal.

“I left about 12 messages and nobody ever called me back,” Rich said. “I didn’t know what was going on. Finally I drove over to the address listed in the phone book and in the parking lot I met a nurse who was coming off duty. She told me I couldn’t come inside, but she pointed out Terry’s window and so I went over there and knocked on the window and I got to talk to her. So I did that every evening until I got the call about this COVID-19 lockdown.”

Rich said he’d been expecting the facility to release his wife back into his care this week, but that changed when she tested positive for COVID-19 and was hospitalized at Kalispell Regional Healthcare earlier this week.

“I got a call on Monday about her being sent to Kalispell by ambulance because she had checked positive for the virus,” Rich said on Friday. “She was doing OK and we had a very nice conversation on Wednesday night. But she took a turn for the worse after that and I got a call at 5 a.m. this morning that she had died.”

Montana reported its 100th COVID-19-related death on Friday, hitting the grim milestone as the state surpassed 7,000 confirmed cases of the respiratory virus.

“We all share the responsibility of learning to live in our new normal. By doing so, we are not disregarding that 100 Montanans have lost their lives,” Gov. Steve Bullock said in a statement. “The best way to honor these souls is to protect the people and the state they loved. Through acting collectively to mitigate the risk, we are preventing this virus from leaving more tragedy in its wake.”

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