COVID-19 outbreak at Belen Meadows Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center

BELEN — On Sunday, Nov. 1 Janet Larson sent a text message to her younger brother. She had tested positive for COVID-19.

By the next day, Janet was in the hospital and on a ventilator. Medical personnel tried to take her off the ventilator a couple of times in the following weeks, her younger brother, Eric Larson, said, but ultimately a choice had to be made.

“After she came off the vent the last time, she was gone within two hours,” Eric said.

His sister was 72 years old. When she tested positive for COVID-19, Janet was a short-term resident at the Belen Meadows Healthcare and Rehabilitation Center in Belen.

A former Los Lunas Schools teacher and resident of Los Chavez, Janet was admitted to Belen Meadows in mid October, Larson said, for rehabilitation. She had cut her leg, which had then become badly infected. The wound needed care and she needed physical therapy to help with mobility issues in relation to the injury, her brother said.

“Theoretically, it was supposed to be four or five weeks, depending on how she responded to therapy,” Larson said. “The intent was to send her home.”

After her initial text, which indicated she didn’t have COVID-19 symptoms, Larson said he was contacted by Belen Meadows staff telling him Janet was being taken to an Albuquerque hospital.

“That was pretty much the last contact I had with Belen Meadows. They told me Jan’s condition and that they were sending her to Albuquerque,” he said. “There was no indication that the problem was as widespread as it is. Honestly, I ended up with Noblin (Funeral Service) and Mr. (Robert) Noblin; he’s the one who let me know about the massive issue there now.”

Last week, the News-Bulletin reported there were 41 employees and 70 residents at the facility confirmed positive for COVID-19 as of Tuesday, Nov. 17.

By Thursday, Nov. 19, those numbers had dropped to 15 staff members and 44 residents, according to Breanna Anderson, a spokesperson for New Mexico Aging and Long-Term Services.

Robert Noblin, owner of Noblin Funeral Service in Belen, said he became aware of the outbreak at Belen Meadows after he was contacted by Valencia County Emergency Manager Sarah Gillen.

“The reason we were contacted is, in light of the situation, emergency management needed to make sure, as a funeral home, we had the capacity to handle a larger number of individuals than usual should the situation at Belen Meadows not improve,” Noblin said.

While he did not disclose the exact number so as to not violate the privacy of families, Noblin said within the last week and a half, the funeral home has seen a substantial increase in the number of individuals from Belen Meadows who are COVID-19 positive.

The New Mexico Department of Health has reported four COVID-19-related deaths of residents at Belen Meadows as of Tuesday, Nov. 24.

It’s unclear how much of a lag there is between a death and the DOH report.

The lack of communication about the outbreak with both him and the community is a source of concern for Larson.

“I sit here and figure out the days. With the incubation period, she would have probably been exposed around Oct. 23 or 24,” he said. “I was able to visit her while she was down there.”

A sign on the front door of the facility informed visitors the facility was under quarantine, Larson said, and the furthest anyone went into the building was the front reception area. He had his temperature taken and was asked the typical screening questions.

“Any visiting we did was by phone or through a cracked window, and we talked with masks,” he said. “Realistically, it’s been 3 1/2 weeks, so if I was exposed I would have shown something.

“But if you have an issue at the beginning when I was there, I should have been notified just as a precaution. No one gave the slightest indication there was a wider problem; no indication 90 percent of the patients are now sick.”

After more than eight months into the pandemic, Larson said there’s absolutely no excuse for an outbreak of this magnitude.

“You’ve had the better part of a year to get the protocols down. My primary curiosity is exactly how the hell did this happen? There’s no excuse to be this far in for a situation like this to arise. I understand we’re going through a spike but they should tighten things more than they are already supposedly doing,” he said.

“How many more people are going to wind up dead? More importantly, why haven’t they said anything? Love’s (Travel Stop) is right there. Are they exposing people going up and down I-25? This lack of communication, they are not showing due diligence keeping the community and families abreast of what transpired there.”

COVID-19 is a challenge to track and contain within congregate settings because it can be “invisible” in asymptomatic people, Anderson said.

“That is why it is critically important that people wear their mask. You never know when a caregiver, nurse, doctor, nurses aide, is also shopping at the grocery store with you,” Anderson said. “If you aren’t wearing a mask, that could have deadly consequences for that health care worker and their patients.”

When a resident or staff member at a long-term care facility tests positive for COVID-19, a rapid response is initiated along with 100 percent testing of all residents and staff.

An infection control company contracted by the state advises the facility on how to apply comprehensive infection control practices and provides additional recommendations for containment of the virus and the safety of residents.

“We also direct facilities to utilize the (New Mexico Department of Health) and CDC quarantine and infection control practices,” she said. “The state’s epidemiology department is also available to provide support or answer questions.”

ALTSD supports the facilities through weekly meetings with administrators, monitoring and providing access to PPE, testing, staffing support, Anderson added, and access to its experts when the facilities have questions.

Liz Sagrestano, a Rio Communities resident, has been at Belen Meadows for rehabilitation for nearly 19 months. The plan was for her to be discharged mid December, but that is all up in the air.

On Nov. 6, she was given a rapid response COVID-19 test and it came back positive. A lab test confirmed the results. Sagrestano has been mostly asymptomatic and sounded hale and hearty during a phone interview last week.

When 20 of the nearly two dozen residents in the 300 hall at Belen Meadows tested positive for COVID-19, the staff took precautions and isolated the positive patients.

“I had a cough, so I took some medication and Tylenol and felt fine,” Sagrestano said.

If she tests positive again, she said she’s not sure what that means for her upcoming discharge.

To mitigate the spread, patients at Belen Meadows are confined to their rooms and are being asked to wear their masks as much as they can, she said.

“They had been closing our doors but they’ve kind of eased up. To a point, it’s a little depressing not being able to look out,” Sagrestano said.

Patients are housed two to a room, so the curtain has to be drawn between them, she said, leading to the sensation of being somewhat cut off from the outside world.

“Some of the older residents don’t understand why their family doesn’t come visit,” she said. “Up until this last outbreak, they were doing window visits.”

While Sagrestano has remained healthy during the outbreak, she lost three close friends at the facility.

“My cousin called … and was worried because I sounded nasaly. Three people passed away who had a special place in my heart, and I’d cried myself to sleep,” she said. “I am thankful I got the opportunity of knowing them. I just never thought I would get that attached to anyone here.”

During the outbreak, everyone on staff has stepped up to help, she said.

“Half the staff is home recuperating, so everyone from activities, therapy, has just chipped in. Nurses are delivering meal trays,” Sagrestano said. “The staff seem to be coping very well. Or they’re hiding it well.”

The Center Executive Director Emmanual Wilson, who’s been at Belen Meadows for about three months, Sagrestano said, is doing his best during the outbreak.

“He’s really bent over backwards. This was like someone threw a match into a dry field,” she said. “He walks down the hall with confidence. When we’ve talked, I didn’t feel like he was yes-ing me to death. I felt he meant what he said.”

Wilson didn’t return calls for comment before News-Bulletin deadline.

During her time at the facility, Sagrestano said she never felt “threatened” by the virus.

“I’m a little concerned now cause there’s been such an outbreak, but I never felt like they never did anything. When this started, I was proud we had such low numbers. It all happened so fast,” she said. “They did what they could, knowing what we know. This second wave hit everybody.”

As of Tuesday, Nov. 24, NMDOH reported 122 long-term care facilities in New Mexico with at least one positive COVID-19 case in residents and/or staff in the past 28 days. Belen Meadows was on the list.

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Julia M. Dendinger began working at the VCNB in 2006. She covers Valencia County government, Belen Consolidated Schools and the village of Bosque Farms. She is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists Rio Grande chapter’s board of directors.