It’s a grim holiday season for all Kern County as the number of coronavirus cases skyrockets.

But it’s especially dark for our most vulnerable neighbors — the elderly living in local nursing homes. Hundreds could face death in the next several months.

17’s Alex Fisher reports.

Convalescent homes combine two killer components on which COVID thrives. They’re home to the oldest and most vulnerable segment of our population.

And right here in Kern County some of those seniors are jammed into facilities that had atrocious records long before COVID began a merciless attack that killed dozens this spring. Health officials are concerned winter could be worse.

Public Health Director Matt Constantine said, “These are people. These aren’t numbers.”

State and federal inspections prove poorly run skilled nursing facilities hosted life-threatening conditions long before 2020. That made them perfect targets for an opportunistic predator like coronavirus.

Kingston Healthcare Center was an infamous example.

“For me it’s been hell on Earth,” said resident Lisa Bennink.

We wanted to speak to management about the abysmal conditions outlined in state and federal health inspections. They wouldn’t talk.

We did the story anyway. Then, residents reached out to us.

“It’s awful here,” said a resident named Jennifer. “I don’t feel good at all.”

We dug deeper. What we found is alarming.

The federal Medicare system inspects and compares skilled nursing facilities. Kingston’s overall score is so low, a rating of “Much below average” is too generous. It is literally off the charts.

A score so low medicare doesn’t even have a rating for it.

Medicare puts two special warnings on its kingston webpage, the only facility in Kern with the labels. One warns of elder abuse. The other warns of a history of poor conditions like cramped rooms — smaller than what’s required, poor lighting and privacy issues.

Federal reports show the home had 39 health citations — triple the number for the average home in the state. Medicare designated the 184-bed home a “special focus facility.”

It’s had that distinction for more than two years. It’s one of only 32 homes in the country that has not shown improvement, according to federal documents.

Jessica Meyer said, “I was a Christian when I came (to Kingston). But I just slowly, since I couldn’t get anything done by being nice, I started to lose my temper and losing self control. I started to turn into an angry person. This place could make anyone angry.”

The Medicare reports document conditions at Kingston before coronavirus hit. When the pandemic did arrive in local skilled nursing facilities in April, it hit Kingston harder than other Kern nursing facilities.

In early May, conditions were so bad the state had to send 41 health staff to help. Reports show conditions improved

But damage was done.

A total of 104 residents tested positive. Nineteen died.

The horrors weren’t limited to Kingston. None nearly as bad, but nearly every nursing home in Kern County had an outbreak.

Three dozen people in 11 homes died. More than half were from Kingston.

The virus slowed in the late summer. But the fear of a more disastrous and deadly winter remains.

When we did our story in June, we again reached out to Kingston and the Los Angeles company that owns it. No reply.

We continued to look for information wherever we could find it. We found it on the state health department’s website.

And what we found was shocking.

We discovered that in May — two days after we first broke the story of the outbreak at Kingston, poor infection control continued, exacerbating an already big outbreak.

State public health reports say the facility was in a condition of immediate jeopardy.
The reports highlight a coronavirus superspreader on the smoking patio at Kingston.

The report says eight residents were outside without masks and not social distancing.
A nurse, the report says, passed cigarettes to the group without washing her hands in between.

Within four days, seven of those eight residents tested positive. The outbreak continued for weeks.

Now — eight months later — the threat remains. And records show mistakes are still being made.

State health records show Kingston is still receiving deficiencies. The most recent — published
just weeks ago — found a staff member not wearing proper PPE before going into a resident’s room.

“You don’t see this type of infection in hospitals,” Constantine said. “You don’t see the transmission occurring at a hospital. Why is it allowed to occur in a skilled nursing facility? We know the science, we know how to prevent it, we just have to do it.”

Today, cases are back on the rise across nursing facilities in Kern County.Public health records show two homes — Kern River Transitional Care and Parkview Julian Healthcare Center — are once again seeing the largest outbreaks.

When things were at its worst for nursing homes, the state mandated each skilled facility create a mitigation plan to stop the spread. Through public records, we received copies of the plans.

The nearly thousand pages of documents highlight common practices to reduce the risk of coronavirus entering a facility. In theory, the plans limit the risk and instruct homes how to react quickly to a possible exposure.

All this is in place to save lives. But the actions can’t simply be printed out on a piece of paper — protocols must be followed.

“Even one resident that is getting sick and testing positive indicates there is some failure in the system,” Constantine said.

It’s not surprising these homes had issues when coronavirus started its reign of terror, said an attorney fighting for change at the facilities.

“We’ve been tolerant of poor care, of care that doesn’t meet the standards set in law,” said attorney Tony Chicotel of Advocates for Nursing Home Reform.

Government reports warned of poor infection control before COVID-19. One report says “most nursing homes had infection control deficiencies prior to the COVID-19 pandemic; half these homes had persistent problems.”

Of the 12 nursing homes Medicare has listed on its website, nine are considered “below average” or worse. Four have been cited for abuse. And despite fines and damning reports, advocates say little is being done to curb the problems.

Said Chicotel, “We knew that nursing homes had a problem with infection control, we knew that they were significantly understaffed, then if you had told me back in February that were going to add in a very lethal virus that spreads among asymptomatic patients, how do you think nursing homes are going to be, I’d say that’s a recipe for disaster because facilities have a culture of non-compliance. They have a culture of bad infection control. It’s been accepted and tolerated for decades.”

California public health — not the county — oversees skilled nursing facilities. But a state audit report says the department has “not fulfilled one of its key oversight responsibilities — to ensure that nursing facilities meet quality-of-care standards.”

“We don’t demand the same kind of loyalty to standards that we would for example child care,” Chicotel said.

Some of these homes are penalized, but the fines are miniscule compared to the amount of money that comes in every day.

“You can kill a resident and be found liable by the Department of Public Health for having caused the death of a resident and the maximum fine is $100,000,” Chicotel said. “That may seem like a lot to some folks but that was the standard set in the 1980s.”

The troubles are far from over as coronavirus remains an active threat. But better practices could
come — at the cost of nearly 5,000 lives in the state, including dozens in Kern.

Said Chicotel, “I think we’ll have some better infection control standards. I think we’ll have some better infection control enforcement in the years going forward after COVID-19.”