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Reporting from the St. George area focused on local government, public lands and the environment, indigenous issues and faith and spirituality.

Coronavirus Outbreak At Blanding Nursing Home Raises Questions About Facility's Mask Policy

Photo of the outside of a building that says "Four Corners Regional Care Center"
Kate Groetzinger
The Four Corners Regional Care Center in Blanding, Utah, is a 104-bed long term care facility.

Dalene Redhorse lost her dad and her grandfather over the weekend. Both lived at the Four Corners Regional Care Center in Blanding and tested positive for COVID-19 last week. 

They were two of at least 33 residents and 15 employees at the care center who have tested positive for COVID-19 in what is now the largest outbreak of the virus in San Juan County.

It likely started with an employee who tested positive for the virus on June 28, according to San Juan Public Health director Kirk Benge. But Redhorse thinks the center’s policies are partially to blame. 

She said she noticed something was off at the nursing home when she visited her father there last month. The facility does not let visitors inside because of COVID-19, so they met in a courtyard. 

“We wore our masks,” she said. “But the nurse who pushed my dad out with the wheelchair didn’t have a mask.” 

An elderly Navajo man in a wheelchair smiles for a photo with marbles columns in the background
Credit Courtesy of Dalene Redhorse
Dalene Redhorse's father, Peter Redhorse, visited the state capitol earlier this year. He died July 11 from COVID-19 at the age of 85.

That moment replayed in her head when she found out an employee at the nursing home had tested positive for COVID-19. She said she remembers looking through the windows of the nursing home during another visit and noticing none of the employees were wearing masks. 

“I wish I had said something,” Redhorse said. “But now it’s too late.” 

Conflicting Reports

A spokesperson for the care center named Derek White told the Tribune last week that the facility has been following state guidelines issued in March that only required sick employees to wear face coverings, and that employees only began wearing masks after COVID-19 was identified in the facility on June 28. 

But Utah health officials issued new guidelines in April that said all employees in long term care facilities must wear masks when interacting with patients. White retracted his initial statement after KUER asked why the care center wasn’t following the updated guidelines and said the center has followed the new guidelines since they were issued in April.

Joel Hoffman is director of licensing for the Utah Department of Health, and he said since the Four Corners Regional Care Center accepts Medicare and Medicaid funding, it is subject to federal law. And federal law requires facilities to follow state guidelines, like the ones issued in April, even if they are not technically state laws.

The health department is also required to inspect all nursing homes in Utah that receive federal funding from Medicare or Medicaid to ensure they are compliant with state guidelines, according to Hoffman, who said the center passed its surprise inspection on June 23. 

“Down there in Blanding, they’re not going to expect you that much, and [the inspectors] said people were wearing masks,” he added. 

But the center posted a photo on its Facebook timeline the next day in which two unmasked employees are posing next to an elderly patient. The post, which KUER accessed on July 11, has since been removed. Another deleted post from May 29 shows another unmasked employee feeding the same patient. 

Hoffman said the photos could have been taken prior to the pandemic, and the health department will only investigate complaints involving incidents that occurred after the facility passed its inspection.

Kate Groetzinger is a Report for America corps member who reports from KUER's Southeast Bureau in San Juan County. Follow Kate on Twitter @kgroetzi

Kate joined KUER from Austin, Texas. She has a master's degree in journalism from the University of Texas at Austin’s Moody School of Communication. She has been an intern, fellow and reporter at Texas Monthly, the Texas Observer, Quartz, the Texas Standard and Voces, an oral history project. Kate began her public radio career at Austin’s NPR station, KUT, as a part-time reporter. She served as a corps member of Report For America, a public service program that partners with local newsrooms to bring reporters to undercovered areas across the country.
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