Nearly a quarter of all COVID-19 cases in one Bay Area county can be linked to a single location, a skilled nursing home in Vallejo where more than 100 residents have tested positive for the coronavirus and 16 have died. Now relatives are demanding that the facility be shut down.
“Some things were intentional and negligent,” said Shawnie Bennett, whose brother, William Bennett III, moved into Windsor Vallejo Care Center in Solano County after suffering a stroke last year. William died from complications of the coronavirus on May 13. He was 31.
“He tested negative, and then they moved someone into his room who was coughing,” his sister said. “They didn’t give that person a mask, and they didn’t provide my brother with a mask. My brother was really scared.”
She is one of more than 1,700 people who have signed a petition calling for Windsor Vallejo’s closure. They allege that negligence at the facility helped pave the way for the COVID-19 outbreak and that complaints about poor practices went largely unanswered for years.
Nursing homes nationwide have been prime breeding grounds for the novel coronavirus, spreading rampantly through highly vulnerable communities. In California, roughly half of all COVID-19 deaths have been in nursing homes or other eldercare facilities.
Administrators at Windsor Vallejo did not respond to multiple requests for comment, but Josh Sable, general counsel for Windsor, said in a statement that the company stands by its protocols and staff.
“Please be assured that the facility is adhering to all recommendations of federal and state agencies,” Sable said.
Families are adamant that more could have been done.
“It didn’t have to get the way it is,” said Maria Grimaldo, who started the petition after her grandmother contracted COVID-19 while at Windsor. “It’s preventable with proper training, proper management, proper overhead.”
Grimaldo and Shawnie Bennett were working to transfer their relatives out of Windsor when the pandemic struck. Now, they say, they’re seeking justice for those who have died and for those left inside.
“We’re trying to give a voice to the patients that can’t speak,” said Grimaldo, who added her grandmother still resides in Windsor’s COVID-19 wing.
Their protests come as more than 28,000 people have died of COVID-19 in care facilities nationwide. As of May 22, 102 residents and 34 staff members at Windsor had tested positive for the virus, making it one of the 10 most infected nursing homes in the state. The facility has 166 beds.
“Unfortunately, when a communicable disease gets introduced into that type of environment, it’s easy for it to spread,” said Solano County Public Health Officer Dr. Bela Matyas, who called Windsor’s efforts to control the spread of the virus “genuine and diligent.”
More than 150 complaints about conditions at the Windsor Vallejo facility have been lodged with the California Department of Public Health since 2017, including two substantiated claims about improper infection control. A Medicare inspection report last year listed 23 citations for violations such as lost clothing items, soiled toilets and failure to provide patients with recourse for their concerns. (The average number of annual citations per nursing home in California is 13.)
The facility received one out of five stars, or “much below average,” on its 2019 Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services health inspection, leaving several families to wonder why it was allowed to keep operating at all.
“William and others were not attended to properly and in a timely manner,” said Bennett’s aunt, Annette Bennett, who alleged that her nephew was not given proper nutrition and was regularly left in soiled diapers for so long that he’d call his aunt, who would have to drive over to ensure that someone changed him.
“That happened more often than not,” she said.
Anne Mendoza, whose aunt, Carol Murphy, died on May 10 after contracting COVID-19 while at Windsor, said she thought her aunt’s case was mishandled from the start.
“They said they were isolating [COVID patients] in a separate wing,” she said. “Having visited there, I don’t know how that’s possible.”
Despite mounting concerns about the facility, the California Department of Public Health responded to questions about Windsor Vallejo by noting that it is not in its Special Focus Facility program for nursing homes that are in need of health and safety improvements. That program, however, is limited to a maximum of 30 nursing homes per state, and new homes are added only when others are moved off the list.
Windsor operates more than 35 nursing home facilities across California, 11 of which have reported cases of COVID-19 to the Department of Public Health. Solano County is releasing statistics from the Vallejo location on a regular basis. Matyas described the 16 deaths at Windsor as a “low fatality rate” compared with other reported nursing home outbreaks.
Grimaldo is now planning her fourth protest against Windsor Vallejo in as many weeks. Each one has drawn between 10 and 20 people who don masks and wave signs that read “Justice for William,” “Be Their Voice” and “Windsor Gave Our Grandma COVID-19,” among other messages.
She said she plans to continue protesting the facility every week for the foreseeable future.
“They don’t seem to be big fans of the attention the place is getting,” she said.“But if you don’t want the attention, then run it correctly.”