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DETROIT – Dennis Williams is haunted by the memory of his mother, Wanda Parker, through the window at a Michigan nursing home.

He said she was begging for help.

It was the last time he saw his 68-year-old mother alive. She died of COVID-19 on April 7, two days after she was transported to a hospital from the Villages of Lapeer Nursing and Rehabilitation.

Williams said he saw employees of the facility not wearing masks, gloves or other personal protective equipment (PPE) during his through-the-window visits with his mother before she died. He’s aware of the lower COVID-19 statistics reported at other nursing homes in the area.

“They (the facilities) actually took the precautions,” the Lapeer, Michigan, man said. “And that’s what pisses me off, is that when we’d go see Mom through the window and it wasn’t the workers’ fault – I had talked to several of them – they just were just being told they could not wear the stuff.”

Dennis Williams says employees at the nursing home where his mother stayed weren’t wearing protective equipment. (Photo: Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press)

“The stuff” was masks and PPE – some of which two former employees and their lawyers said were donated by the community but kept away from the staff.

Williams, his stepfather and his brother sued the nursing home. So did three former employees, all certified nursing assistants, who contracted the virus and alleged the nursing home refused to test residents or staff, to let employees stay home unless they had a fever and to allow employees to wear masks or PPE during the initial weeks after the pandemic hit Michigan in mid-March.

One former employee said a mask was ripped off her face by the director of nursing, who told her she was scaring patients.

Nineteen residents at the Villages of Lapeer Nursing and Rehabilitation, an 87-bed facility, have died of COVID-19, according to data from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. That is more than half of the 34 COVID-19 deaths in Lapeer County. 

On April 8, the day after Parker died, the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs began a survey of the nursing home and declared “immediate jeopardy” in a 37-page report. The state report supports the allegations of management barring staff from wearing PPE.

The Villages of Lapeer provided this statement to the Detroit Free Press of the USA TODAY Network last week:

“Due to the fact that the matters being inquired about are ongoing, we are not in a position to provide comment. We can say that The Villages of Lapeer has been and will continue to cooperate with the involved parties.

“Please be assured that The Villages of Lapeer is committed to continuing to provide high quality care and support to our residents and their families, as well as support for all of our staff during these challenging times.”

Attorneys representing the nursing home did not respond to calls and emails.

Williams’ lawsuit names Jill Vankerschaver, identified as the former director of nursing who resigned April 7. A woman who answered the phone under a telephone listing for Vankerschaver said, “I’m not interested. You have a nice day,” before hanging up on a Free Press reporter.

‘This is not just a screw-up’

Three lawsuits were filed in Lapeer County Circuit Court in June against Davis & Davis Management Group, which owns the Villages of Lapeer Nursing and Rehabilitation. listed the owners and directors of the Villages of Lapeer Nursing and Rehabilitation as Michael and Thomas Davis, two doctors who are brothers.

The Free Press could not reach the Davises on Friday.

In an article April 9, Thomas Davis told TV station ABC12, “We’re taking good care of the patients, and everything is being followed by the letter. And I don’t want people to be worried about their loved ones that are in there.”

In a follow-up article the next day, after Parker’s family raised concerns about her death, the station quoted Davis as saying there was a shortage of PPE across the country.

“We were not being negligent, we were doing everything we could, believe me,” he told the television station.

No responses had been filed to the lawsuits, and no court dates had been set as of last Wednesday, according to Lapeer County Circuit Court.

Williams’ lawsuit and one filed by Taylor Minifield and Tasha Harden, both of Flint, each seek more than $1 million in damages. The third lawsuit, filed by Shanika Johnson of Flint, seeks more than $25,000.

Their attorneys say the nursing home’s actions amounted to gross negligence and egregious circumstances.

“When you rip the face mask off of a person … that’s active, that’s intentional, that’s reckless,” said Jim Rasor, one of the attorneys. “This is not just a screw-up. This is not a mistake. This is actively, recklessly putting people in a horrible or deadly disease.”

Co-counsel Andrew Laurila said, “Here we had a willful refusal to allow people to wear PPE.”

The Villages of Lapeer Nursing and Rehabilitation says it “is committed to continuing to provide high quality care and support to our residents and their families.” (Photo: Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press)

They said a post March 27 on the facility’s Facebook page shows homemade masks and N95 masks and says, “Our community has been so gracious to us, and we are SO grateful!”

Minifield said she saw masks go into the director of nursing’s office.

“She kept ’em in there. She never brought ’em out. I asked her in the hallway, like, can we bring in donated masks, and she said, ‘Oh yeah, I have a lot of them in my office. I’ve got them for emergency purposes only,’ ” Harden said. “I’m still confused what was considered an emergency, (because) that was an emergency.”

Previously: Death toll rises as coronavirus sweeps through Michigan nursing homes

The lawsuit filed by Minifield and Harden says that starting in the middle of March, they saw employees and staff show signs of the virus. It alleges that during the week of March 16, the director of nursing told staffers they were not allowed to wear PPE because it would “scare the residents.”

Minifield cared not only for residents such as Parker but also for her mother at home, who was being treated for cancer. She said she wore her own mask to work at the end of March for her safety and the safety of the residents. The director of nursing, she said, removed it from her face.

Taylor Minifield says her boss removed Minifield’s mask. (Photo: Taylor Minifield)

“She said you have to take that off because basically you’re scaring the residents. The residents were asking why were we wearing masks,” Minifield said. “She told me, ‘You have to take it off.’ She ripped it off my face and threw it right into, we have a trash can on our nurse’s cart, and threw it right in there, and walked off and didn’t care. And she told me, ‘If you have something to say, you can leave my building.’ ”

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Minifield said she told the director of nursing March 25 that residents under her care showed severe symptoms of COVID-19.

The director of nursing told her, “No one here has the virus,” the lawsuit alleges. When Minifield asked her supervisors what the plan was, she was told there was no intention of testing the residents “because they could not possibly have it,” according to the lawsuit.

Minifield arrived at work March 28 feeling sick, but was told she had to work unless she had a fever. She called in sick the next day and on April 3 found out that she had the virus and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.

Tasha Harden tested positive for COVID-19. (Photo: Tasha Harden)

Harden worked the week of March 23 with residents she suspected had the virus and “persistent high fevers.” During shifts March 29 and 30, she interacted with seven residents who had serious virus symptoms, including one who was vomiting for four days, the lawsuit says.

She reported the conditions and her concerns but was told there were no plans to test any of the residents “and they would remain in their present states.” Some of those patients died, according to the lawsuit.

Harden started to feel sick March 30 and stayed off work April 1. She went to the emergency room April 6. Two days later, she received positive test results for COVID-19. Her daughter also tested positive and was hospitalized, the complaint says.

More: Nursing home residents account for 34% of Michigan’s COVID-19-related deaths

In her lawsuit, Johnson said she reported various respiratory ailments she experienced to her supervisors March 24, saying she felt she might have the virus. She “was expressly told by management that unless she had a fever – Plaintiff did not – she had to work.”

She reported concerns for residents who showed symptoms of the virus.

On March 31, Johnson’s symptoms and condition worsened, which she reported to management but was denied sick leave, she said. She worked for 90 minutes and had a nurse take her vitals, which prompted her to go home, according to the lawsuit.

It says that while driving home, Johnson’s respiratory ailments became so severe, she pulled over and called 911. She was taken to a hospital by ambulance and the next day received positive test results for the virus.

On April 2, the director of nursing called Johnson and requested proof she tested positive, which Johnson sent her. Johnson called the Lapeer County Health Department, which told her that the nursing home reported that Johnson’s last day of work was March 26, according to her lawsuit.

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‘Immediate jeopardy’

In early April, the Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs surveyed the Villages of Lapeer Nursing and Rehabilitation through observation, interviews and record reviews.

The state issued its report, which declared “immediate jeopardy.”

“Based on observation, interview and record review, the facility failed to follow accepted Infection Control standards of practice to ensure the appropriate Personal Protective Equipment/PPE (the use of facial masks) was made available for staff usage when caring for residents during the onset of the facility”s COVID-19 outbreak of a census of 58 residents, resulting in increased COVID-19 cross contamination, 25 facility residents with reported COVID-19 tests … numerous staff members with reported positive COVID-19 test results, 6 resident deaths … and the potential for further cross contamination of other residents residing in the facility with possible hospitalization and death,” according to the report.

The report, which doesn’t refer to employees or patients by name, says  the “immediate jeopardy” began March 24 when the former director of nursing came into the facility therapy room and told an occupational therapist to remove her own personal protective face mask and told her “she was not going to wear the mask in ‘her building.’ This was during a worldwide pandemic of the COVID-19 virus.”  

The report says that according to the state Health Department, Lapeer County had the first case reported of COVID-19 on March 24.

Two nursing assistants had been sent home from working at the facility on March 25 by the previous director of nursing for wearing their own protective face masks while caring for facility residents, according to the survey report.

The county Health Department reported April 9 that the facility had 22 residents with a positive COVID-19 test result. By April 13, there were 25 residents who tested positive for the virus.

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The Department of Licensing and Regulatory Affairs report says the “immediate jeopardy” was abated April 7 based on observation via virtual tour of the facility staff wearing the proper PPE, including protective facial masks, while interacting and caring for residents and on confirmation during interviews April 14 that the facility had implemented seven measures to remove the “immediate jeopardy.”

The report ended: “Although the Immediate Jeopardy was removed on 4/7/20, the facility remained out of compliance at scope and severity for potential for more than minimum harm pending the facility”s ability to sustain compliance as verified by the State Agency.”

Nursing homes hit hard

As the state of Michigan passed 100,000 confirmed coronavirus cases, it has recorded 6,446 deaths from the virus as of Friday. More than a third of those deaths, or 2,103 as of Wednesday, have been nursing home residents.

Shortly after the first cases in Michigan were announced March 10, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer issued an executive order restricting visitors to nursing homes.

The state Health Department eased visitor restrictions June 30 but only for residents who are in serious or critical condition or hospice care or who need someone to help them with activities of daily living.

Whitmer  allowed COVID-19 patients to be treated in the same facility as those who had not contracted the virus. Wednesday, the U.S. Department of Justice announced it wants Michigan and three other states governed by Democrats to provide data related to nursing homes and coronavirus deaths.

Feds to Whitmer: Turn over COVID-19, nursing home data. She blasts back response.

In addition to the 19 resident deaths, the Villages of Lapeer Nursing and Rehabilitation has had 47 confirmed resident COVID-19 cases and 16 confirmed staff cases, according to the state’s long-term care data. There have been no COVID-19 deaths among staff.

‘Her life had value’

Williams said he has nightmares about his mother’s death. 

“All I hear is my mom saying, ‘Please help me,’ the last time I seen her through the window. Over and over again,” he said.

Wanda Parker arrived at the nursing home in November and was scheduled to stay about 12 days for rehabilitation. Shortly after she arrived, she had a seizure, lost the use of her legs and was bedridden. She  had diabetes and heart disease, according to the lawsuit filed by her family.

“I never had nobody love me that much,” Williams said.

Parker loved to shop and give items to others, Williams said: “You couldn’t go to her house without leaving with a bag of stuff.”

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Williams said he visited his mother daily at the nursing home. After the pandemic hit, he had to visit her through the window.

“It was horrible to see what happened,” he said. “I feel guilty for even letting it happen, but I don’t know what I could have did.”

Williams’ lawsuit says the former director of nursing “severely understated the conditions at Villages during (an) initial conversation with the Lapeer County Health Department.” It says the first day the nursing home tested any resident was April 3 and by April 21, there were 13 deaths.

The nursing home’s management, it says, “disregarded weeks-long internal reports of resident danger and continued to refuse to test residents and effectively continued to allow these dangerous conditions to persist in the face of a serious problem and imminent harm to numerous high-risk residents” such as Parker.

Williams said a nurse at the hospital held a phone to his mother’s ear, so everyone could say goodbye since they couldn’t go inside.

He said the nursing home hasn’t reached out since his mother’s death, but it sent a bill for the month of April. It was for $1,300, said Laurila, one of Williams’ attorneys.

Williams said that just because his mother had health problems “doesn’t mean she was disposable.”

“She always recovered from that stuff. She was not gonna die tomorrow,” he said. “I don’t know how long she had, but she had a lot longer than she was given.”

Follow reporter Christina Hall on Twitter: @challreporter

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