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Coronavirus-hit Riverside nursing home evacuated as staff stays away

RIVERSIDE - Nursing homes are one of the highest-risk centers for coronavirus outbreaks, with several hundred patients infected throughout California and six deaths in a single facility in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the toll has left some areas pleading for health care workers.

On Wednesday, more than 80 patients at a Riverside home were moved to other facilities after at least a dozen employees failed to report for work for a second day. Only one certified nursing assistant out of 13 scheduled for the shift showed up at the Magnolia Rehabilitation and Nursing Center, health officials said.

“Our understanding is some of the staff were worried about their health and did not show up," Riverside County Public Health spokesman Jose Arballo told KTLA-TV.

Health officials said 16 staff members at the center had tested positive for the virus along with 34 patients, while a neighboring facility, Extended Care Hospital of Riverside, had 26 staffers and 28 patients with confirmed infections.

It may be the first such evacuation in the state. An outbreak at a skilled nursing facility in neighboring San Bernardino County that infected more than 50 people and killed five caused staffing shortages but residents didn't have to move.

In San Francisco's East Bay region, nearly 60 residents and staff at Gateway Care and Rehabilitation Center in Hayward were confirmed with the infection and six residents have died, Alameda County health officials said Wednesday.

In the Central Valley, the Redwood Springs Healthcare Center in Visalia reported 57 cases and one death. The nursing home accounts for about one-third of all the infections in Tulare County.

More than 130 institutional settings, including skilled nursing facilities, have reported virus cases in Los Angeles County, and at least 37 people have died, Public Health Director Dr. Barbara Ferrer said.

Wendy Ezzes said her 90-year-old mother, Dorothy, is in a Southern California nursing home.

“I'm nervous for her getting ill, and I'm nervous about how am I supposed to help her?” Ezzes told CBS News.

“I think I'm as safe here as I could be anywhere,” her mother said during a phone call with Ezzes. “They're doing everything they can to keep us safe. And I have a lot of faith in them.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said nursing homes are at highest risk during the pandemic because their residents are older adults who often have chronic medical conditions and share close living arrangements.

The virus has spread quickly among nursing home residents in other states, leading to dozens of deaths.

Among workers, there is concern that they are receiving proper protective equipment such as masks and gowns, which have been in short supply.

The California Department of Public Health reported Wednesday more than 1,650 confirmed cases among health care workers around the state. The figure includes those who were infected both inside and outside of their workplace.

“Regardless of the source of exposure, an infected health care worker needs to isolate from the workforce to prevent risk of infection to colleagues and the patients they serve,” the department said.

Natalie Visnick, a spokeswoman for the American Health Care Association, a nonprofit group representing more than 14,000 nursing homes and other care facilities, said the Riverside issue “signals a larger, pressing issue.”

“Health care workers in long-term care are having to put their lives (and their family members who they return home to) on the line every day for their residents,” she said in an email. “Meanwhile, nursing homes and assisted living communities continue to desperately need the resources that will help them battle this virus, including personal protective equipment.”

The Riverside home was evacuated a day after the county was notified that five employees and 34 residents at the 90-bed facility had tested positive for the virus, said Brooke Federico, a spokeswoman for the county's public health agency. The county initially sent nurses to help but was forced to evacuate the center as the shortage persisted.

No one at the facility could be reached for comment. A message was left Wednesday on a number listed for the center's administrator.

“Nationwide all of our health care workers are considered heroes, and they rightly are,” said Dr. Cameron Kaiser, Riverside County's public health officer. “But implicit in that heroism is that people stay at their post.”

As for those who failed to appear for work, “I am concerned that this could rise to the level of abandonment, no matter how justified the reason might be,” Kaiser said, adding that state regulators will have to determine whether the employees should be disciplined.

Bruce Barton, director of the county's Emergency Management Department, made an impassioned plea for volunteers to work at nursing facilities, promising those who sign up will get adequate safety equipment and malpractice coverage.

“We are in immediate need for help to care for our most vulnerable patients,” Barton said. “Please come join us.”

Many nursing homes already had closed their doors to visitors and stopped receiving new residents because of the virus.

Ferrer said some families may choose to bring their loved ones home from a nursing facility but many are faced with “the horrible reality” that they lack the resources to care for them.

Deborah Pacyna, director of public affairs for the California Association of Health Facilities, said her organization doesn't recommend removing people from homes where they are receiving proper care.

“That's the best place for them to get the kind of care that they need given their underlying health conditions,” she said.

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Taxin reported from Orange County, California. Chris Weber and John Antczak in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

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