Eastside News

Nurses taking care of Life Care Center patients describe what they saw inside the facility

KIRKLAND, Wash. — For the first time, we’re hearing from the brave nurses inside Life Care Center of Kirkland, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.

So far, 37 people associated with the nursing home have died of coronavirus. Most were patients, though one was a visitor.

Of about 180 staff members, more than 90 were showing symptoms, according to Public Health Seattle and King County.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the nursing home counted on help from nurses from other Life Care Center facilities.

Chelsey Earnest was the director of nursing at a sister facility and came to help.

She noticed a symptom in sick patients that no one had talked about.

"It's something I witnessed in all of them. They have, you can describe it as allergy eyes. The white part of your eye is not red. It's like they have red eye shadow on the outside of their eyes. But we've had patients who've just had the red eyes as the only symptom we saw and they go to go the hospital and pass away," said Chelsey Earnest.

She said the fight to save life inside Life Care was like war.

"You're going off to war and you're in a battlefield where supplies are limited, the help is slow to get to you, and there's lot of casualties," said Earnest, wiping her eyes.

CNN interviewed the employees of Life Care, and kept them six feet apart. None of the workers have been sick, and none have tested positive for coronavirus.

When asked about the spread of the virus through the facility, Earnest said:

"There's usually two patients to a room. Some of the rooms are bigger and have three patients and you have care-giving staff who are very close to their residents. We hug them, we kiss them, we love them. I couldn't have been perfect on my PPE (personal protective equipment)." She said the race to save lives made it impossible.

Nancy Butner is the vice president of Life Care Centers of America's Northwest Division. She explained why families of patients were unable to get through to staff when the outbreak began.

"We had a significant drop in staff. We had a significant care needs that were a priority over, unfortunately, talking to families on the phone," said Nancy Butner, who was the director at Life Care Center of Kirkland for 14 years.

Life Care Center says they asked for help and didn't get enough. They say it took too long to get the COVID-19 test kits to help them separate sick patients.

Now, the feds hope to learn from what happened in Kirkland. Investigators from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services found three "immediate jeopardy" situations, when a patient's safety is in immediate danger. They say Life Care failed to rapidly identify sick patients, failed to notify the State Department of Health about the increasing rate of respiratory infections, and didn't have a backup plan when the facility's primary clinician got sick.

For Earnest, coronavirus was a threat she didn't see coming.

“I didn’t expect it to be so lethal. And I have no shame in saying, I was wrong.”