Elmwood Care Center, May 2020. Photos: Pete Rosos

Dozens of residents and staffers at South Berkeley’s Elmwood Care Center have tested positive for COVID-19 since mid-December, according to state data and relatives of people staying in the skilled nursing facility.

As of Friday, at least 51 residents and 18 workers at the Elmwood Care Center had contracted COVID-19 since the pandemic began last year, according to state data. Those figures represented a significant jump from mid-December when totals for both of those categories remained below 11. (The state masks exact COVID-19 figures below 11 due to medical privacy laws.)

Data reported by the state Friday showed 19 new resident COVID-19 cases and 19 current resident cases at the Elmwood Care Center. It was unclear how much lag there might be between state publication of those numbers and the receipt of test results, and how much overlap there might be between those two categories. Elmwood’s spokesman has declined to answer specific questions from Berkeleyside about the data.

California tracks COVID-19 cases and deaths at skilled nursing facilities and makes that data publicly available because those facilities house such a vulnerable population. But the data can be unreliable, incomplete and confusing.

One Elmwood staff member, speaking on condition of anonymity, told Berkeleyside on Wednesday that the facility had 52 active cases at that time of residents with COVID-19. But she also said she believed the Elmwood had been “doing everything right” before the recent outbreak, with all staff wearing protective gear before entering rooms in addition to following other safety protocols.

“I don’t know how it could be spreading so fast,” she said. “It seemed like everything was in place and everything was being taken care of properly.”

According to state data as of December, the Elmwood Care Center had 70 residents and 85 staff members. Using a conservative estimate, that means at least 60% of residents have been infected with COVID-19 in recent weeks. There continue to be active staff cases at the Elmwood as well, but that number could be anywhere between one and 10. No staff deaths have been reported since the pandemic began, but at least one resident at the facility did die last year after contracting COVID-19.

Terry McGregor, the Elmwood’s executive vice president, has not responded to any of Berkeleyside’s inquiries about the numbers reported by the state. He said only that the facility is working closely with public health officials on next steps and testing. He declined to be interviewed and provided only a brief statement.

“After more than 7 months on not having any patients test positive for COVID-19, Elmwood Nursing and Rehab has experienced a recent outbreak of COVID-19 cases,” he told Berkeleyside by email. “The patients have all been isolated and the recommended infection control processes are being followed. Resident families have been notified.”

Elmwood Care Center staff reportedly overwhelmed

The family member of one Elmwood resident told Berkeleyside she got a call shortly before Christmas alerting her to a single positive test result at the facility. A few days later, she said, a staff member called to tell her 17 people had tested positive. And this week she was told her own family member had contracted COVID-19 but appears to be asymptomatic.

“They don’t give you much information,” she said. “I did think they were handling the outbreak well for the last year. But when, all of a sudden, they said they had 17 cases, I was blown away.”

A relative of a different Elmwood Care Center resident said he was told in December about the facility’s first positive test; he was told it was a kitchen worker. That grew to five, then 22, then 28. The last time he spoke with staff, on Monday, the number was up to 35 cases including residents and staff. That included the facility’s receptionist and at least one of its social workers, he said.

The man said his mother, a longtime Berkeley resident, had just gone into the Elmwood in mid-December after a knee injury. She had first gone to Kaiser for treatment and was told she would need to move into one of several partnering rehab facilities for her recovery. The man, who was born at Alta Bates and is an alum of both Berkeley High and UC Berkeley, said he was immediately worried about the prospect of his mother going into any group living situation.

“They’re sending you to ground zero,” he said. “We were afraid it was a death sentence.”

The Elmwood’s recent Yelp reviews were also alarming, he said. He tried to tell his mother about them, but she wanted to stay close to home so her neighbors could drop off food and other supplies.

Then she got a positive COVID-19 test — she was among the group of five to come back positive, the man said — and was moved into a room at the Elmwood with no telephone. It turned into a nightmare, he said.

“You knew they were completely overwhelmed because her request for a phone was being completely ignored,” he said. “Then they installed it, but they put it in the wrong room.”

The man said he would try to call the Elmwood for updates but the phone would just ring and ring. Or someone would answer but then hang up immediately. Sometimes staff would just put callers on hold until they hung up in frustration.

“I don’t blame the staff there, they’re just overwhelmed,” he said. “This has overwhelmed a lot of systems and I get that. But you’re not supposed to get half of your residents infected at this point in the game.”

He said his mother, who is 92, was stressed out and isolated. Earlier this week, she took a turn for the worse and was transferred to Kaiser where there was a strong concern by doctors that she might not survive. When she was admitted to Kaiser, she hadn’t been bathed in 14 days, her son told Berkeleyside. Elmwood staff had put her in diapers that didn’t get changed for hours even when they were soiled.

The woman hadn’t been able to rest due to constant intercom announcements and the lights being left on at all hours, not to mention the terrible food, the man said. It got to the point where she just started to ask for Ensure nutritional shakes because she knew at least she could eat that.

Late Monday night, he went to Kaiser and was instructed to put on a mask and gown so he could say what would likely be goodbye to his mother. On Tuesday morning, when he saw an incoming call from Kaiser, he prepared himself for the worst. Instead, it was a cheerful nurse saying his mother had been transferred upstairs and was doing well.

“This was like Oakland Raiders football with doctors and nurses. You turn off the TV when they’re doing badly, but then they come back,” he said. “She’s alert, she’s talking. There’s an absolute sense of euphoria. It’s incredible.”

He said the entire process had been deeply frustrating and that it didn’t seem like the Elmwood had a good system in place for caring for resident needs or keeping families informed. He said it had been hard to even find out who was in charge and that, ultimately, it hadn’t felt like the Elmwood manager understood the trauma families are experiencing when their loved ones get COVID-19.

“We dodged a bullet,” he said. “I think my mom was one of the lucky ones. She’s a fighter. She rallied and she’s doing well. I just don’t know if all the other residents who ended up catching COVID there are going to be as lucky.”

Elmwood had reportedly been COVID-free since May

Until December, the Elmwood Care Center, also called the Elmwood Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, at 2829 Shattuck Ave. (at Oregon Street), had not had a COVID-19 case since May 2020, according to the brief statement from the Elmwood spokesman.

Berkeleyside had reported on two cases at the Elmwood that month, one of which ultimately proved fatal.

Berkeley has five skilled nursing facilities and one long-term memory care facility, all of which are required to report COVID-19 infections to public health officials. They are the Ashby Care Center, Berkeley Pines Skilled Nursing Center, Chaparral House, Elmwood Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, Kyakameena Care Center and Silverado Berkeley Memory Care Community. Together, the six sites include 418 residents and 297 staff members, according to the city.

Berkeley Pines is the only other skilled nursing facility in the city to have reported a death linked to COVID-19. That took place in July.

Silverado, the memory care center, had its own COVID-19 outbreak in December. As of this week, Silverado still has 42 active cases among residents and 28 among staff. That outbreak claimed the life of at least one person, an 86-year-old woman, the Alameda County coroner’s office told Berkeleyside previously. The facility is licensed for 87 residents, with a 1:1 staff ratio.

As of Friday, 15 people in Berkeley had died from complications related to COVID-19 and there have been 2,109 lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Elmwood testing data for crucial week is missing

The city of Berkeley said it could not comment on the Elmwood outbreak due to medical privacy laws. City spokesman Matthai Chakko provided a brief written statement in response to a Berkeleyside inquiry.

“All skilled nursing facilities are required to conduct serial routine surveillance testing of their staff and residents and conduct increased testing in response to any identified cases which includes testing of staff and residents,” the city said in a prepared statement. “All facilities have written mitigation plans to reduce transmission, which include details of testing and cohorting, infection prevention and control, and adequate provision of personal protective equipment. Berkeley Public Health and state agencies provide support, technical assistance and resources to all skilled nursing facilities.”

The city also declined to answer Berkeleyside’s questions about how testing protocols at skilled nursing facilities may have changed over time. But the city says it has worked with those facilities throughout the pandemic on testing and other safety protocols.

This week, Berkeleyside took a deep dive into the available testing data for the Elmwood Care Center as reported by the state. Berkeleyside learned that testing data for the most critical moment of the recent outbreak — when COVID-19 was spreading rapidly — appears to be missing. And the data for the week the first cases were identified appears to be incomplete.

The California Department of Public Health has an online database that shows testing data from skilled nursing facilities going back to July 2020. Each testing period covers seven days. The most recent testing period listed in the database is for the week running from Dec. 27, 2020, through Jan. 2.

The Elmwood Care Center appears to have reported testing figures diligently throughout 2020, but no data is listed for the testing period that began Dec. 27. Berkeleyside asked the Elmwood for those numbers but there was no response.

For the week of Dec. 20, when community members said they were informed by staff of at least six positive test results, the Elmwood reported a 0% resident positivity rate and listed the staff positivity rate as “N/A,” according to state data.

The Elmwood appears to have regularly tested many of its residents weekly until Oct. 11 when, according to state data, there appears to have been a shift to more of a cohort testing model. Again, the Elmwood did not respond to Berkeleyside’s questions about this shift.

Statewide, 7,500 nursing home residents and workers have died from COVID-19

Statewide, according to California Department of Public Health records, there have been more than 53,000 lab-confirmed resident COVID-19 cases in the state’s 1,223 skilled nursing facilities and about 44,000 healthcare worker cases since the pandemic began last year. About 7,500 people have died.

There are currently about 5,500 active resident cases and 6,700 staff cases at skilled nursing facilities throughout the state.

Alameda County has about 70 skilled nursing facilities, according to state data. Overall, there have been nearly 2,000 COVID-19 cases linked to residents at those facilities, resulting in 225 deaths, and about 1,500 staff cases of COVID-19 with fewer than 100 deaths (the exact number is not provided).

If you have experience with any of Berkeley’s senior health facilities related to COVID-19, Berkeleyside would love to hear from you.

Emilie Raguso (former senior editor, news) joined Berkeleyside in 2012 and covered politics, public safety and development until her departure in 2022. In 2017, Emilie was named Journalist...