There were moments in the first two weeks of March 2020 when only the heart of a true champion could have continued to fight against the ravages of COVID-19 that engulfed Life Care Center of Kirkland, Washington, the location where the virus first struck America.
The staff inside Life Care Center of Kirkland found themselves in a battle against an invisible enemy. They had more questions than answers. Residents were declining rapidly and dying in hospitals shortly after being transferred. Caregivers were getting sick in large numbers. Supplies were limited. The best medical minds in the country were stumped. Local and national media began telling a frenetic story that led people across the country to believe the facility had created the virus.
The knockdowns were too many to count. There was a point in time at which the leadership of Life Care Center of Kirkland considered transferring all of their residents and shutting the facility’s doors. They wondered if they were down for the final 10-count. But that never happened. The staff got up again and again and persevered, even when no one believed they could. That’s what champions do.
The passage of time brings important context and clarity to the facts surrounding Life Care Center of Kirkland and its fight against COVID-19. It’s a very different story than the one told by local and national media back in March and April, a time when accusations flew about the virus and who to blame, even though it was a collision of circumstances that no one had ever faced before.
The Kirkland story is not a story about a skilled nursing facility that did everything wrong. It’s a story about a dedicated group of people who found themselves trapped in a bunker with the eyes of the world suddenly on them as the clock struck midnight on Feb. 29, 2020. It’s the story of a passionate staff of caregivers who banded together and did things right.
Today, Life Care Center of Kirkland is COVID-free, a status that we know can change in a matter of hours. The facility learned of its first positive case of COVID-19 on Feb. 28. Yet, thanks to its determined staff, the building was COVID-free 31 days later.
"Our team at Kirkland was the first to meet COVID-19 head on, defeat it, stabilize our building and move forward, providing a safe environment and peace of mind for our residents and their families," said Nancy Butner, a former executive director of Life Care Center of Kirkland who is now a division vice president for Life Care.
"That's the real story of Kirkland."
The emotional pain experienced during the 31 days that COVID-19 was in the facility was immense and still lingers; 39 resident lives were lost fighting a virus no healthcare facility was prepared for its residents to fight. On Aug. 28, 2020, the legacy of those 39 residents was commemorated as a permanent memorial marker was dedicated on the grounds of Life Care Center of Kirkland, marking the six-month anniversary of the outbreak.
"The pain would be even greater were it not for the support of the Kirkland community that rallied to our associates," said Ellie Basham, executive director at the facility.
"We thank them."
As the months have passed, the lessons learned from Kirkland have become clearer, especially the fact that on Feb. 28, 2020, no government, medical professional or healthcare facility was prepared to fight COVID-19. But other lessons have also surfaced.
Rather than a skilled nursing home that "caused" COVID-19, Life Care Center of Kirkland was the place where the country first learned of the virulent nature of the virus and what had to be done to contain it. During the first two weeks of the crisis, representatives from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Department of Health came to Kirkland to observe and learn about the coronavirus.
Life Care Center of Kirkland is where the country first learned that the healthcare industry did not have enough PPE to defend against the virus. Kirkland is where the country learned how swiftly the virus can spread and infect even skilled healthcare workers. Kirkland is where the country learned about the lack of adequate testing and realized how important it is for us to have access to dependable and readily available testing. Kirkland is where the country first saw the negative and overwhelming impact the virus would have on hospitals.
And Kirkland is where the country learned how quickly and mercilessly the lethal virus could take a life. Perhaps the most important legacy of Kirkland is that the lessons learned as lives were lost during February and March actually prevented an even greater loss of life across the country in the months that followed.
What is abundantly clear with the passage of time is that the champions inside Life Care Center of Kirkland deserve high praise for their actions, not the withering criticism they have received.
That vigilance includes:
Life Care Center of Kirkland remains vigilant to provide the safest possible environment for its patients and associates. Peace of mind for its residents and their families drives the staff. It’s what the community expects, and it is what the champions of care at Life Care Center of Kirkland will continue to provide. That vigilance includes:
- Knowing better than anyone in the country how to fight the virus. The ongoing training that occurs with associates is based on real-life experience, which makes it the best possible training ground in the industry.
- Consistently communicating with family through phone calls, text messages with documents/links to more detailed information, video conferences and access to a COVID-19 hotline. Amid the chaos, the facility has maintained its commitment to providing peace of mind to the families of its residents.
- Daily monitoring of adherence to CDC, CMS and local and state health department regulations.
- Exploring technologies like ultraviolet lights and air filtration systems to fight the virus inside a closed space like a skilled nursing home.
- Conducting a 10-point respiratory assessment of every patient every day.
- Establishing a relationship with a local lab to get COVID-19 test results within 24-48 hours.
- Proactively approaching COVID-19 surveillance through daily screenings and testing staff on a monthly basis.
- Making PPE available on-site for at least a two-week period.
- Monitoring residents for COVID-19 symptoms daily. New patients are also tested for COVID-19 and quarantined for 14 days.
No healthcare facility of any kind in America walked through more difficult days battling COVID-19 than the leadership and associates of Life Care Center of Kirkland did in March 2020. The valley was deep and dark, but the associates of Kirkland came out stronger on the other side. That’s what champions do.