Three more people are dead from a COVID-19 outbreak at Atria Marland Place, bringing the total number of fatalities at the assisted living and memory care complex on Stevens Street to 16, according to an official at the company that owns the facility.

Since the first case was discovered Oct. 27, the Andover facility has not only tightened restrictions on activities with hopes of stopping the spread, family members of its residents say the facility has also clamped down on communications.

The daughter of an 89-year-old resident who died from the coronavirus said the staff should have been more transparent when her mother began having symptoms.

“I felt looking back that they were telling me she was fine, but she wasn’t,” said Christina DiBitetto, whose mother, Bessie Kenney, died Nov. 30. “If they had sought help sooner for her, would the outcome have been different? I don’t know.”

Nursing homes and long-term care facilities such as Marland Place are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus, with senior populations at higher risk of developing serious symptoms and dying from an infection. COVID-19 has ravaged many such communities in Massachusetts and around the country.

In all, Marland Place has reported 74 cases of COVID-19 — infecting 52 residents and 22 employees — since late October.

Kimberly Codair, regional vice president for Atria Senior Living, a company with more than 180 facilities in 26 states and Canada, said in an email Wednesday that multiple weeks of testing have detected no new positive cases.

“We send sincere condolences to their family, and we will be thinking about them during this hard time,” Codair wrote of those who’ve died from COVID-19. “We will be holding a memorial service in the future to remember all of our residents who passed during the pandemic.”

Keeping tabs

DiBitetto said she last saw her mother Oct. 24. A visit the following week was canceled because of the rising numbers of COVID-19 cases.

After the outbreak at Marland Place was first reported, DiBitetto said she kept tabs on her mother, who lived in the memory care unit, via an app that reported her mom’s temperature and potential symptoms twice a day.

Then, in the second week of November, she said the app wasn’t updated for two days.

DiBitetto called on Nov. 9 and an aide reported her mother had a low-grade fever and other flu-like symptoms, she said. The app didn’t show Kenney had symptoms until four days after that — the same day Kenney was rushed to Lawrence General Hospital.

“No one communicated to me that there was a case on that floor, or she was possibly exposed,” DiBitetto said. “They kept telling me she was fine.”

By the time Kenney got to the hospital, she was suffering severe symptoms of bacterial pneumonia, DiBitetto said. A COVID-19 test came back positive later that evening.

On Nov. 16, after her mother had been in the hospital for a few days, DiBitetto said she learned from an email sent by the facility that 33 more residents and four more employees had tested positive at Marland Place.

Codair did not respond to questions about the facility’s app, and she would not comment about specific patients.

“We remain committed to keeping all our residents and families informed regularly,” she wrote to the Andover Townsman. “While private health information cannot be disclosed, we communicate each positive case to everyone and individually notify those identified through contact tracing.”

Families were notified of COVID-19 cases in the facility Nov. 7, according to an email that reported one resident, seven employees and two private duty aides had tested positive. Following the first positive case, on Oct. 27, the facility conducted several rounds of follow-up testing, Codair said.

“Then, a full-community testing clinic was performed on Nov. 11,” she said. “Full community testing continued until ... two rounds of all-negative results were received from residents, staff and private duty aides.”

The facility sent additional emails to families as additional positive cases were discovered. But family members say they didn’t receive information about the total impact of the outbreak at the facility until this past week, after Townsman sister paper The Eagle-Tribune contacted Marland Place for this story.

Family visits

Marland Place didn’t have any COVID-19 cases prior to October.

“After months of relative success with keeping COVID-19 out of our community, this outbreak happened unannounced, quickly and silently, as the virus has done everywhere it exists,” Codair said.

DiBitetto said she was impressed by the facility. She chose Marland Place for her mother about a year prior after touring the facility and meeting its staff. It was also close to her family.

DiBitetto said her mother had four grandchildren and two great-grandchildren, and the “highlight of her life” was spending time with them and other members of her family.

Prior to the outbreak, “I never felt uncomfortable,” DiBitetto said. “I always felt she was in good hands and being looked after.”

Throughout the pandemic, DiBitetto visited the facility weekly to organize her mother’s medications while sitting in the lobby. Staff reported that her mother was socializing, walking the halls and helping others to interact.

“All of that made me happy,” she said.

However, even after an email announced limits to family visits, DiBitetto said she continued to see residents and family members interacting while she sat in the lobby and couldn’t see her own mother.

On Oct. 31 and again a week later, she noticed “a lot of people coming and going, and people who had definitely been outside of the facility, whether outside with the family or away for a few days,” she said.

Asked about the policy for visitors, Codair said Marland Place temporarily suspended family visits during the outbreak, in consultation with the town Health Department.

But the state Office of Elder Affairs requires that indoor family visits be allowed to continue — with restrictions.

“All visitors must answer our screening questions and wear a mask at all times,” she said.

Assisted living facilities like Marland Place received federal and state guidance to help stop the spread of the virus. The recommendations change frequently.

Such facilities don’t receive federal funding and therefore don’t face the same level of regulation as nursing homes do about communication with families and visitation policies.

In early November, state Elder Affairs Secretary Elizabeth Chen advised assisted living facilities to “limit indoor social visits and salon services if the (facility) has had a new COVID-19 staff or resident case in the last 14 days.”

Now that the outbreak at Marland Place has subsided and there have been no positive tests since the end of November, Codair said Marland Place residents, their families and its staff look forward to the vaccine.

“As we look to 2021, we have confidence in our testing and infection control protocols and in upcoming COVID-19 vaccination clinics to see a bright future for our residents and staff in a post-COVID environment,” Codair said.

 

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