Inside a Miami Senior Care Facility Battling COVID-19

NBC 6 Investigators take you inside an assisted living facility with multiple coronavirus cases and deaths. You’ll hear from staff on the front lines about the challenges they have faced and why they fear reopening too fast. 

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Residential Plaza at Blue Lagoon is one of many long-term care facilities who have borne the brunt of the coronavirus pandemic. With hundreds of vulnerable seniors at risk, the consequences for residents can be deadly and the pressure can be immense for staff.

Up until now, we’ve mostly seen these facilities from the outside: grieving loved ones with little information and eerie statistics measuring cases and deaths inside. In an exclusive interview with NBC 6, staff at Residential Plaza tells us the situation early on was no less hectic. They were short on supplies and answers about who had the virus.

Three months ago, seniors at the assisted living facility located in Miami participated in group classes and spent afternoons at the domino table.

But that changed in a matter of weeks.

“I’m sorry. So much has happened. We haven’t really had a chance to catch our breath,” said Jackeline Diaz, a nurse and memory care director at Residential Plaza. She works with residents with dementia and Alzheimer’s disease.

The facility administrator tells NBC 6, nearly 300 people had to be quarantined in their rooms in mid-March.

Jackeline says staff had to treat everyone as if they were positive because testing wasn’t available until later in March and most people inside were not showing symptoms. 

“It’s just sad to see them (residents) locked up in their room the whole time. Because when you go in there, you see their faces light up like ‘oh I’m seeing a face. I get to talk to somebody.’ That’s probably the worst part. Like it’s a little heartbreaking,” Diaz said. 

When emergencies happened, they happened fast. According to Residential Plaza, six residents have passed away after testing positive for the virus. One of them was Rosa Zamanillo, who lived in the facility's memory wing for years.

“By the time I got to see her, she really wasn’t there. She was so beyond herself already,” her son Jorge Zamanillo told NBC 6 Investigators in April. He claimed the facility did not provide much information about his mother's condition until she was near death. 

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At the time, Barbara Galindo, Residential Plaza’s administrator sent us a statement responding to the story: "We are committed to transparency as we battle this unprecedented disease, stretch resources, and learn to balance our obligation to the privacy of our residents and their families with the public's need to know.”

She said the facility is holding weekly conference calls with families and that, upon receipt of a positive test result, they are notifying residents' primary contact and those who may have been at risk of exposure.

According to the latest numbers provided by Residential Plaza, nearly 400 residents and staff have been tested. The majority of results have come back negative, but at least five staff members and 12 residents have the virus. Of those, ten have been hospitalized. The facility says it’s waiting on 11 test results involving residents.

“It was challenging at the beginning and it is still challenging now,” Galindo said describing dealing with the amount of cases in a recent interview with NBC 6.

Galindo has worked in the building for 17 years but says this virus is something new. 

She said her priority was to keep residents and staff safe, but in March and April, access to personal protective equipment like masks, face shields, and gowns, were hard to find on the private market in the quantities they needed.

“These are not normal items that you have in stock. So that is the first challenge,” Galindo said.

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At one point, it required nurses to make their own gowns and families of residents and staff sewing masks until shipments from the state and county arrived.

“We couldn’t find supplies. We were even making gowns out of trash bags,” Diaz said, adding she now has access to the protective equipment she needs, including N95 masks.

With the help from the city of Miami Fire Rescue and the Florida National Guard, the Residential Plaza says they have been able to test everyone in the building at least once. Records show the city’s fire department has been dispatched multiple times to the facility since late March for testing.

“Our current situation is, we would want retesting on a more consistent basis. That way we can ensure containment, especially now when we are moving forward with opening some areas in the community,” Galindo said.

On Thursday, Residential Plaza became the first stop of a mobile testing laboratory that’s being dispatched to nursing homes and assisted living facilities around Miami-Dade County to conduct on-site testing of residents and staff.

“The mobile lab performs a ‘diagnostic test’ where one's nose is swabbed, providing COVID-19 results in 45 minutes,” according to a news release provided by the facility. The initiative is a collaboration between the Florida National Guard, the state’s Department of Health and Division of Emergency Management and a private laboratory. 

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Inside Residential Plaza, they have seepage units for COVID-19 positive residents. The facility said workers try to isolate themselves even outside of the building. But Diaz said they are worried about the plans to reopen South Florida and people not following the rules.

“Just going home and coming back, I see people out in the street,” Diaz said, adding she hasn’t seen her own family in weeks as a precaution. “Not everyone is taking it seriously. And it’s making it difficult for us who are taking it seriously to keep people safe.”

According to staff inside, keeping up with new rules and regulations has also been a challenge.

The latest example was this week when Gov. Ron DeSantis ordered long-term care facilities to transfer residents if: they cannot check on COVID-19 positive residents three times a day, holding them in a secluded section of the building and checking asymptomatic residents every eight hours.

Galindo said she worries about DeSantis’ order because moving vulnerable residents in and out of the building is difficult and time consuming. She said it is crucial to treat everyone according to their individual needs.

For loved ones trying to contact their family members inside, Residential Plaza asks for patience during this time. The facility said they recommend calling them to set up a video chat or to drop off things to cheer their loved ones up, like their favorite snacks.

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