The executive in charge of the nursing home where the first known outbreak of coronavirus patients erupted in the U.S. says a federal inspection diverted precious time from her staff’s desperate efforts to care for critically ill residents. Bill Whitaker and his team were the first reporters allowed inside the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington, since the outbreak there last February. His report reveals the details of the early stages of a medical emergency that soon grew into a pandemic and the federal government’s bungled response to it. The report will be broadcast on 60 Minutes, Sunday, November 1at 7 p.m. ET/PT on CBS.
Nancy Butner, a vice president at Life Care Centers of America who ran the Kirkland facility for 14 years, was desperate for more staff. Forty of them, including the medical director, could no longer come to work because they had COVID-19 symptoms. She asked the federal government for an emergency team of doctors and nurses. A team of doctors and nurses did come five days later, but not before the federal government sent a team in to inspect Life Care Center of Kirkland in the middle of the outbreak. “It was infuriating– they didn’t truly understand COVID or what the facility was going through,” Butner tells Whitaker. “Hours of staff time were averted to managing a survey process instead of managing a crisis in the facility and patient care.”
Life Care Center says inspectors from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services interviewed staff and demanded documentation, diverting 400 hours of staff time away from patient care. “They knew how many staff were lost. They knew how many patients were hospitalized. They knew there was a lot of patients that were sick and it was an unknown virus,” says Butner. “I explained that to them. But I can’t… tell them to leave.”
60 Minutes searched hundreds of public documents and turned up emails that show state health officials pressed the governor’s office to call off the inspection. Dr. Jeffery Duchin, the head of outbreak response at Public Health Seattle-King County called the inspection “Not an appropriate use of precious time.” He tells Whitaker he believes the government knew its investigation was taking place during a public health emergency at a critical time. “I don’t have any reason to believe it. That it was a mix-up. I believe it was an intentional decision to conduct a survey at that time.”
Says Butner, “I think they wanted a scapegoat for what happened at Life Care Center Kirkland. I think that they wanted someone to blame for COVID-19 spreading. We had nothing to do with the spread across the nation.”
60 Minutes wanted to ask Seema Verma, the federal administrator in charge of the inspection, about the timing of the inspection and the findings, but her office declined multiple requests for an on-camera interview.
Life Care was fined more than $600,000 by the federal government and state inspectors working with federal investigators working with federal investigators found the company put residents in immediate jeopardy. Life Care Center appealed both and a judge in the state case ruled that the case against Life Care Center Kirkland was not one of negligence. The appeal of the federal case is still pending.
Butner welcomed the ruling in the state’s case. “[The judge] found that everything we did during that time was appropriate. He ruled in our favor. I think that it was very clearly written by the judge that what we did was the best that we could do.”