It was April 3, 2020, when Kansas City news outlets broke the story, “19 Coronavirus Cases Reported at KC Rehab Center.” It was the early days of what we now know would become a deadly pandemic, and most Americans still couldn’t wrap their heads around just how deadly this disease might be. However, day-by-day, as the report of COVID-19 positive cases, and deaths at Riverbend Post Acute Rehabilitation in Kansas City, KS, began to accumulate, area residents grew concerned.
Just one week after the initial report, the death toll at the Medicare/Medicaid-approved facility had reached 10 with 92 confirmed cases. Then 110, next 119 confirmed cases, 25 of them staff, in the 135-bed facility. The death toll went up too. By April 23, just 20 days after the first cases were reported, the death told at Riverbend had reached 27, most of them the city’s most vulnerable and the poor.
With 37 deaths to date, Riverbend turned out to be Kansas’ second-largest COVID-19 cluster, second only to 39 deaths at Garden Terrace in Overland Park, another Medicare/Medicaid-approved facility.
Now, the family members of many of those who died at Riverbend have filed lawsuits against California-based Ensign Group, the facility operator, alleging negligence by the facility’s staff and management.
Among the African-American residents at Riverbend who died were Iola Mae Herviey on April 5; Johnny James Dale Jr., April 7; and Okey Long, April 17.
“I wish we had a chance to see each other before you went to heaven but I know I’ll see you again one day,” Dale’s daughter, Christy Jackson, wrote in an online tribute to her father, who died at 60.
The obituary for Long, 87, noted he was an ordained minister but also had various other roles throughout life: barber, bus driver, maintenance man, salesman.
Herviey “was most happy when people were at the house playing cards, drinking, playing music and dancing,” said the obituary for the 93-year-old woman, who had nine children.
Visiting his mother at Riverbend, Darryll Fortune said he would walk down the halls and see nameplates on the doors of folks he remembered as a superintendent or a teacher at a school, local business people, names that stood for something in a town everyone called KCK.
There “was a whole community there of people who grew up in Kansas City, Kansas,” Fortune said. “And because they were… didn’t have great economics or, poor, I’ll put it that way, Riverbend and other similar places was their only option.”
Surviving relatives of Dale, Long and Herviey are among plaintiffs in lawsuits against Riverbend
Rachel Stahle, a nursing home abuse and neglect attorney with Dollar, Burns, Becker & Hershewe, Kansas City, Missouri, has filed seven lawsuits against Riverbend, with four of the seven cases involving African Americans who died. She said she’s aware of at least seven other cases that have been filed against Riverbend, and other attorneys have cases that are expected to be filed soon.
At the heart of the Riverbend cases are the conditions in the nursing home and alleged negligence by staff and management. A report based on data collected from April 22 to May 1 and available online at the Kansas Department for Aging and Disability Services, provides a glimpse into what was happening in Riverbend. Staff was not wearing personal protective equipment as recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and COVID-positive residents were not restricted to their rooms, the investigation found.
“We now have 61 confirmed cases with 7 deaths,” a Riverbend nurse wrote in an email to a former boss who was employed in public health. “Majority of clinical staff has quit, housekeeping department has quit. … Wyandotte County has not been helpful in assisting us with this. The Kansas Dept. of Health has not been able to help us. We are in a complete crisis.”
The Dept. of Aging report also notes that in an April 22 interview, the then-administrator at Riverbend, indicated he suspected the COVID-19 death toll was actually higher than the 32 linked to the virus by that date, “since many residents died with symptoms for COVID-19, but were not confirmed as COVID-19 positive prior to their death, but more residents had died with COVID-19 symptoms that had not been tested.”
While lawsuits have been filed against other Kansas nursing home facilities, including lawsuits against Catholic Care Center in Bel Aire with 19 COVID-19-related resident deaths, the Riverbend lawsuits are precedent setting. The Riverbend litigation was in the pipeline early on, with the Long case – Stahle is attorney for the Long family – filed in April. The case started in Wyandotte County District Court and was transferred to federal court. That court remanded it back to Wyandotte County District Court, as desired by the Long family.
As of mid-January, none of the Riverbend cases have reached the trial stage.
Initially, Kansas did not track COVID-19-related deaths by race. However, since the state began tracking race, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation report the percentage of African-Americans who have died from COVID-19 is approximately equal to the percentage of their race in the state’s population. The same report showed that in 30 states the percentage of African-Americans dying from COVID-19 exceeded the percentage of that race in that state.
According to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment, 181 African-Americans were among the state’s overall 3,525 fatalities from the virus as of Jan. 18, 2021.
The Kansas News Service contributed to this article.