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Vasiliki “Bess” Vetas couldn’t remember to wear her mask.

She was in the memory care unit at The Ridge Foothill, a senior community in Salt Lake City.

When her daughter Eleni went to see her — through a window — on April 7 for Mom’s 87th birthday, the staffer beside her was masked.

The birthday girl wasn’t.

Less than a month later, a nurse called the Vetas family to say the mother had tested positive for COVID-19. Family members could not get into Vetas’ room to see her and had to climb a ladder to watch through her window.

Vetas died Sunday at The Ridge Foothill.

“It is the most brutal death for someone suffering my mom’s conditions,” Eleni said Thursday. “We’re still in shock.”

(Courtesy the Vetas family) Vasiliki “Bess” Vetas

Her mother is one of 10 residents of The Ridge Foothill to have died from the virus, according to updates from the facility and the Utah Department of Health. That’s the highest known death toll at any facility in the state. At one point, 34 residents and 17 staffers at The Ridge Foothill had tested positive for COVID-19.

Those numbers spotlight an emerging reality of the coronavirus: While long-term care facilities are at a higher risk — they have accounted for 41 (including one reported Friday) of Utah’s 93 coronavirus deaths — centers that cater to residents with memory problems or cognitive or intellectual disorders are even more vulnerable.

In fact, The Ridge Foothill reports on its website that all of its coronavirus cases among residents have been in its memory care unit.

Residents of long-term care facilities tend to be a demographic most susceptible to serious complications from the virus — older and possessing underlying health conditions. Like with everyone, social distancing or quarantining is the first step in keeping them safe.

That’s not necessarily an option for residents with memory problems or cognitive disorders, said Dr. Allyn Nakashima, infections/antibiotic resistance program manager for the health department.

“It’s a functional inability to stay in their rooms because you can’t remember when someone tells you to stay there,” Nakashima explained. “[Staff members] have a very, very difficult time keeping people in isolation."

That’s why the state has given such centers priority in a plan to test all employees of long-term care facilities.

On Thursday, the health department sent a crew to West Jordan Care Center to swab workers there and test them for the coronavirus — even though there have been no reports of an outbreak at the facility.

“West Jordan Care Center serves people with intellectual disabilities,” health department spokesman Tom Hudachko wrote in an email, “so they are higher on the priority list.”

So far, he said, the state has tested staffers at about 90 long-term care facilities across Utah.

Another facility for the intellectually disabled, Provo’s Medallion Manor, is on the state’s list of care centers with five or more coronavirus cases in the past two weeks. A spokeswoman for the center said that, as of Wednesday, one resident had died after contracting the virus there.

The Ridge Foothill, 2363 S. Foothill Drive, offers assisted living and services for people with Alzheimer’s, dementia or other memory problems. In an April 29 message, the center told residents and their families that one employee and one patient in the memory care unit had tested positive for COVID-19.

Conditions spiraled afterward.

By May 1, the written updates on The Ridge Foothill’s website included tables of how many workers and residents had tested positive or negative for the coronavirus. By May 13, the table showed 34 residents and 17 workers had tested positive.

A review of updates The Ridge Foothill sent families shows it began banning visitors and closed common areas in mid-March.

Mike Achoki, a spokesman for The Ridge Foothill, said it is using weekly testing from the health department to identify infected workers and residents and contain the outbreak.

Nakashima didn’t offer any other measures The Ridge Foothill could have implemented to keep the virus from infecting so many.

“If one patient gets it, everybody in there gets it,” she said. “It’s kind of the nature of these memory care units.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah Department of Health tested staff in the pavilion of the West Jordan Care Center for the coronavirus on Thursday, May 21, 2020. The testing is part of a plan to test staff at all long-term care facilities, with centers for memory patients and the intellectually disabled receiving priority.
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Advocacy groups such as AARP and the Alzheimer’s Association have called for testing residents in all long-term care facilities. There are more than 300 in Utah.

The American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living estimated this week that it would cost more than $2.2 million to test all residents and staff in 99 such facilities in Utah. The price tag and resources are why Utah has opted to focus on testing only employees until there is an outbreak at a care facility. The White House has urged that all long-term care residents be tested as well.

Other long-term care facilities, including some that don’t cater to memory patients or people with cognitive disorders, have had multiple deaths. Highland Cove Retirement Community in Millcreek has had nine.

Woodland Park Rehabilitation and Care Center, also in Millcreek, has reported that six of its residents have died from COVID-19.

The state reported 183 new cases of the virus Friday — an increase of 2.3% since Thursday — raising the total to 8,057 since the start of the outbreak. Of those, 4,748 are considered “recovered” — that is, the patients have survived for three weeks after a COVID-19 diagnosis.

Utah’s skilled nursing homes to receive federal money
Skilled nursing facilities in Utah will receive payments totaling $37.3 million as part of the federal coronavirus response, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services announced Friday.
The payments are meant to help facilities that have lost business due to the pandemic or have had COVID-19-related expenses.
Skilled nursing facilities across the country have seen a 6% decline in patient population since the start of 2020 either due to patient deaths or families opting for other types of care, according to a news release from the department,.
The facilities will receive a fixed distribution of $50,000 plus $2,500 per bed.
— Nate Carlisle