Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing readers free access to critical local stories about the coronavirus during this time of heightened concern. See more coverage here. To support journalism like this, please consider donating or become a subscriber.
When Cristina Agudo heard a resident of Pine Creek Rehabilitation and Nursing had tested positive for the coronavirus, she didn’t want to go back to work there.
Then she remembered the patients.
“I said, ‘You know what. I signed up for this,’” Agudo said.
She is one of about 20 employees caring for the remaining residents of Pine Creek and one of three who spoke to The Salt Lake Tribune on Friday via Skype. On April 4, Pine Creek became the first facility in the state to be turned into a treatment center for COVID-19 patients.
Pine Creek and the Utah Department of Health made that decision after six residents and two staffers tested positive for the virus. At least one resident, 85-year-old Janice Blodgett, has died from the coronavirus, according to her family.
The employees said 18 residents remain at Pine Creek. Rachel Zimmermann, a nurse there, would not discuss the health of any residents, except to say they are improving.
“I can't leave,” Zimmermann said. “This is not their fault. They deserve better care than that. They still need the help. They still need the love.”
Agudo would not discuss Blodgett by name but spoke generally about a death that happened at Pine Creek. As she did so, Agudo went against the advice of medical professionals and touched her face — to wipe away tears.
“The first person to pass away, the first lady, she reminded me of my mom,” Agudo said. “She’s my favorite.”
Pine Creek is a 34-bed facility at 876 W. 700 South in Salt Lake City. It normally would have about 50 employees, including part-time workers, said Agudo, who is head of human resources.
Many of the employees have been unable or unwilling to work since the positive test there. That has forced remaining staffers to work longer hours or pitch in.
Agudo, who is also a certified nursing assistant, said she’s been doing laundry and other housekeeping chores in addition to payroll and hiring.
“I love working with the old people,” Agudo said. “They're just sweet. They're like the next thing [to] a kid.”
Ben Kipp is the dietary manager at Pine Creek. He would normally have a helper in the kitchen, but this week it has been only him. He arrives at 5:30 a.m. and goes home about 7 at night.
Pine Creek has closed its dining room and is serving meals to residents in their rooms. Kipp doesn’t have any contact with the residents.
Still, there’s risk of infection.
“I'm handling their dishes,” Kipp said, “their forks, their knives, their spoons and stuff. … I'm washing the glasses they’re drinking out of.
“We take extra steps to use extra sanitizer, extra bleach, you know, make sure you’re wearing gloves,” he added. “Make sure, you know, cover your face. Don’t touch your face; wash your hands constantly.”
Agudo said conditions began to change at Pine Creek on March 25, when a male resident fell face first and broke his nose. Agudo saw it and helped him up.
The man was transported to a hospital, she said. Emergency room staffers discovered he had a high temperature. “We found out like a day or two after that he’s positive."
Agudo, Zimmermann and Kipp said they have all taken COVID-19 tests. All came back negative.
Agudo, 51, worries about passing the coronavirus to her husband, who has asthma. Zimmermann, 44, lives in West Valley City with her mother, who has a weakened immune system. Kipp, 46, lives alone in downtown Salt Lake City but says he has family and a girlfriend nearby whom he hasn’t been able to see since the coronavirus arrived at Pine Creek.
Even so, Kipp, Agudo and Zimmermann all feel compelled to come to work.
“These people can’t go anywhere,” Kipp said. “They can't do anything. I'm doing something for them that they can't do for themselves. And I'm very, very passionate about my craft and my talents.”
Kipp said residents are as young as 35, though they all have some issue that prevents them from living on their own. Although he has less help and the workday is quieter, Kipp said the kitchen duty hasn’t changed.
He’s still serving meals from Pine Creek’s standard menu. For Friday’s dinner, Kipp was cooking Salisbury steak with homemade mashed potatoes, rolls and broccoli. For dessert, he made a chocolate cake with strawberry frosting.
When Zimmermann arrived for her nursing shift Monday, she found signs pinned to the chain-link fence, rooting on the Pine Creek staffers and celebrating them as heroes.
“They brought my spirits up,” said Zimmermann, and convinced her she “can do this.”
She does so now in gloves, goggles and a mask when she’s around the patients. On the Skype call Friday, all that was off, but she had a Band-Aid on her nose to protect the spot where her N95 mask was rubbing.
One of her biggest tasks in the last week has been cleaning — her hands and surfaces in Pine Creek. Another task is to keep the residents occupied.
Group activities have been canceled and Pine Creek is not allowing the window visits that have become a practice at other nursing homes. Zimmermann said she and other staffers have been making sure the TVs and DVD players in the residents’ rooms are working.
One man likes to watch westerns, Zimmermann said, and she has been helping him view movies on a tablet. Sometimes she’ll play music from her smartphone.
Zimmermann said some residents don’t understand that there’s a pandemic or the need to take so many precautions.
“They forget and they get confused,” Zimmermann said. “It's been a hard thing for them to understand. To be honest, with the uncertainty of COVID anyway, it's hard for any of us to understand.”
When Zimmermann goes home, she changes clothes before entering the house. The work duds go into a bag and then into the wash. Zimmermann immediately takes a shower.
No one knows when the strict protocols might be lifted. But all three plan to keep working until or unless they show symptoms.