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I-Team: Safeguarding our Seniors

The coronavirus is proving to be a deadly threat to nursing home communities. The disease, spreading quickly through the vulnerable population. The government has taken notice, moving to stop the escalation, working to keep seniors and healthcare personnel safe.

While new layers of protection have been introduced, the Ombudsman Program, around for nearly 30 years, continues to keep a watchful eye, while safeguarding our seniors.

The pandemic has created a challenge for the men and women who visit these homes to identify problems, listen to compaints and advocate for those housed in assisted living or skilled nursing facilities.

"They have rights, these residents all have rights because this is their home and so we need to make sure that their rights are not being violated," says Mary Jane Leonhardi, Regional Coordinator, Coachella Valley Longterm Care Ombudsman Program.

New Channel 3's I-Team Reporter Karen Devine spoke with Mary Jane Leonhardi who coordinates the Ombudsman Program in the Coachella Valley via Zoom.

Leonhardi and her team oversee 122 assisted living facilities and 12 skilled nursing facilities. That's more than 3,000 beds with just six volunteers and two paid employees.

"We normally go out on an unannounced visits several times a month and of course now though that's changed," says Leonhardi.

Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the advocates are no longer allowed inside any of the local facilities. And, there is no set date for when that will change. Leonhardi and her team have had to get creative to make sure the seniors are getting their basic needs met and that they are able to voice their concerns.

"Luckily for technology, my gosh, we're face-timing, we're emailing, we're skyping and I think it's going to become a lot more prevalent with using Skype and it's going to be necessary for the facilities to let us do that," say Leonhardi.

Devine also spoke with the Riverside County Ombudsman Program Director, Hazel Lambert, who emphasized everyone has to work together during such a critical time.

"Families are coming up with ways that they can communicate with their loved ones. The staff is coming up with ways to communicate. Everybody is kind of working together to come up with ideas and technology so we can have those daily check-ins," says Lambert.

After workers failed to show up for shifts at Magnolia Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Riverside last month, more than 80 patients, including 34 who had earlier tested positive for covid-19, were evacuated. Many were sent to beds in the Coachella Valley.

In response to that incident: Four "S-O-S" or Skilled Nursing Facilities Outreach Support" teams have been activated by county health officials. But, still the infection rate at the facilities continues to rise.

According to the Riverside County Public Health Department, this week the total number of patients and staff combined who have tested positive for the coronavirus is 773. That's 507 confirmed patients and 266 confirmed staff.

While the county does not list how many people have died in the care facilities, they do list the ages of the deceased. The majority of the deaths are between the ages of 65 & 84 years old with the second largest age group being 85 years and older.

That being said, the California Department of Public Health does list reported deaths from each county and skilled nursing facility.

In Riverside County, of 54 facilities, 11 reported at least one death. However, the data isn't specific if a care home has 11 or fewer deaths. By our calculations, there could be 34 deaths or as many as 124 coronavirus deaths at nursing facilities in the county.

Nursing homes in California and several other states looking to their governors for immunity in the deaths of residents due to coronavirus. Healthcare professionals saying they are strained and understaffed. A situation that could leave residents more vulnerable to infection and possible neglect.

"Right now we're being very careful to make sure we're not missing any reports or complaints," says Leonhardi.

The virus hasn't slowed the need for ombudsman services, there are still complaints. And, family of those inside the facilities are mostly relying on staff to get information about their well-being.

There are flyers throughout the homes and now on the front doors with a 24 hour emergency hotline number for residents, staff and family members.

Lambert tells Devine, "Usually when the ombudsman is called, we're hoping that the first thing they do is try to resolve whatever issue they have in-house. Because as ombudsman, we don't want to take those rights we want to be able to let them know, you know, try to empower them to speak for themselves."

Ombudsmen are regularly checking in with the healthcare workers by phone and going through a check-list making sure they have adequate personal protective equipment, and that safe activities are still happening for residents.

"I think it's important that we remember that our elders are here, they should be honored, they shouldn't be forgotten. And, asking people to, especially at time like now to step-up," says Lambert.

Lambert calling their volunteers, "He"roes and "She"roes, stressing they need more help. For more information or if you like to volunteer your time here's how you can reach an Ombudsman.

Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program
Council on Aging - Southern California

Office Phone: (833) 772-6624
24-Hour Hotline (800) 231-4024

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Karen Devine

Karen Devine is celebrating her 27th year delivering the local news as an anchor and reporter in the Palm Springs television market. Learn more about Karen here.


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