After enduring a deadly COVID-19 outbreak, residents and staff at Country Oaks Care Center in Santa Maria received good news last week — the facility was confirmed virus-free by the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department and is clear to accept new clients. 

The outbreak, discovered in late May, led to 30 residents and 28 staff members at the 57-bed care center testing positive for the virus and the deaths of 11 residents, according to county data. 

COVID-19 outbreaks have been confirmed among residents at seven other skilled nursing facilities in Santa Barbara County, with the Public Health Department defining an outbreak as one or more confirmed cases in a communal living facility. 

Since Country Oaks was cleared by county Public Health on July 15, the center has been extra cautious in terms of sanitation and screening of residents and staff, according to John Henning, who has co-owned Country Oaks with his wife Sharon for 29 years.

"The staff has been great at accepting changes we’ve had to make, now that we know we’re back to where we were before the outbreak," Henning said. "We had to change some cleaning routines, to make sure everything is sanitized multiple times per day. Especially high touch areas like door knobs, time clocks ... some things you don't ever think about."

Henning said the facility had a stringent protocol for testing and screening everyone in the building, even before the outbreak. Staff members were screened every day beginning in March, and by May, residents were having their temperatures checked three times per day, he said. 

Despite the precautions and reminders to staff to limit their exposure outside of work, on May 29 the first resident was hospitalized after her fever spiked, she was confirmed for the virus that weekend and later died.

By the following Tuesday, everyone in the facility had been tested, with several receiving positive results.

"That’s when we made preparations for dealing with this," Henning said. "We started designating a part of the building for quarantine, and had to separate a bunch of the rooms to deal with that whole situation. We had to have a separate entrance, a separate break room ... It was a big ordeal."

Some of the residents and staff eventually confirmed for the virus were asymptomatic, making it hard to identify how the outbreak began, he said.

"A bunch came back positive, although not all residents and not all employees had symptoms," he said. "This virus is so hard, because so many people are asymptomatic but have it, and you don't know." 

To assist the facility, the county Public Health Department provided testing materials at the beginning of the outbreak as well as personnel to fill the gaps left by staff members in quarantine. 

Additionally, four residents who had tested positive were transferred to Marian Extended Care where they died, Henning said. 

Sara San Juan, spokeswoman for Marian Regional Medical Center, confirmed that four residents from other facilities had been transferred to Marian Extended Care and remained there until they died, but declined to specify which facility they were from due to privacy concerns. 

"The COVID-19 positive patients that came from other facilities required emergency medical attention or were inpatients at Marian Regional Medical Center, and once cared for, were then transferred to our skilled nursing facility," she said.

Henning said the remaining residents, and especially the staff members, are grieving those who did not survive the outbreak. The facility is planning a small memorial service for them sometime next week, he said. 

"We’ve gone through the worst of it. We’ve come through, but that doesn’t mean it won’t happen again," he said. 

Ongoing investigations

According to the Public Health Department, resident outbreak investigations are continuing at Alto Lucero Transitional Care, Buena Vista Care Center, Lompoc Comprehensive Care Center, Marian Extended Care Center, Samarkand Skilled Nursing Facility, Valle Verde Health Facility and Lompoc Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation Center.

Along with Country Oaks, resident deaths in connection with COVID-19 have been confirmed at Marian Extended Care and Lompoc Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation Center. 

Lompoc Skilled Nursing has the second-largest outbreak in the county with 23 residents and 21 staff members testing positive, as welll as three resident deaths, according to county data and facility administrator Mark Hall.

"We luckily have a great facility where we can isolate people. We did not have spread all over the facility and it luckily stayed in one area," Hall said, adding that most of the individuals who died were hospice patients. 

At Marian Extended Care, one facility resident died in connection with the virus, along with the four residents who were transferred from another care facility, San Juan said. 

Five additional facilities are under investigation for confirmed cases only among staff members, including Atterdag Care Center, Casa Dorinda, Santa Maria Post Acute, The Californian and Villa Maria Post Acute. 

The Public Health Department has cleared one other facility in addition to Country Oaks — Santa Maria Post Acute, where cases were confirmed among staff members but not residents. 

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Santa Maria City Reporter

Originally from the Pacific Northwest, Laura Place covers city government, policy and elections in Santa Maria and Santa Barbara County. Follow her on Twitter @itslaurasplace

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