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N4T Investigators: Inside Sapphire of Tucson

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TUCSON - We’ve brought you the stories of terrified family members. Their loved ones living inside one of Arizona’s hardest hit long-term care facilities that has been consumed by COVID-19. Now, we are sharing stories from inside of the facility, as those who live and have worked inside Sapphire of Tucson, speak out.

"It got to the point where I didn't feel safe," said former Sapphire of Tucson employee, Kayla Dennis. Dennis has been a certified nursing assistant for 14 years. Until recently, she took care of the residents inside Sapphire of Tucson, a long-term care facility.  She said she loves the staff and patients, but believes that the care facility is not prioritizing the health of either group and she feels that they are putting them in harm’s way.

Dennis said, "they would admit patients to where we were overwhelmed.” She added, that there was not enough staff to handle the workload on a given day and "sometimes I would have 10 patients and sometimes I would have 20 patients."She says that was before the coronavirus hit the rehabilitation facility.

Dennis took a seven week leave of absence on March 14, just before the first patient at the facility was diagnosed with COVID-19.  "Patients started getting fevers, and were acting funny. We told the nurses and they wouldn't listen to us," she said. Dennis said as much as she hated to leave her patients, she had to leave the facility to take care of her disabled daughter and elderly father-in-law.

She returned to work on May 5. She said she was given one mask and one gown to wear all day, while expected to take care of COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 patients, housed on the same floor where she worked. "So you help them with the same gown and same gloves, so it kind of worries me that's how it spread so fast," Dennis said.

Some patients who live inside Sapphire of Tucson right now told the News 4 Tucson Investigators they are also worried.One patient asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. He contracted COVID-19 while living there. He shared his concerns via text with the News 4 Tucson Investigators. He texted us, "They are hurting for aides and nurses that they overlook inadequate isolation procedures and PPE equipment is being worn wrong. They still are using the same PPE from room to room. They don't change it. Then, there's others who don't wear any PPE. No gowns or masks."

Jeanine L'Ecuyer, the spokesperson for Sapphire of Tucson, said that is simply not true. Despite 38 employees who tested positive for the coronavirus, she tells News 4 Tucson that the facility is fully staffed, and has PPE. “Sapphire began planning for the pandemic before the state or even the CDC. In February, we began purchasing additional expensive PPE to ensure we would have an ample supply. There has never been a shortage of PPE at our facility, states L’Ecuyer.

Dennis told News 4 Tucson, she couldn't work there any longer and quit on May 5th, the same day she returned to work.

In a statement, L’Ecuyer, the spokesperson for Sapphire of Tucson says, "The former employee interviewed by KVOA News 4 knows nothing of the current situation at Sapphire of Tucson...Despite having been educated on appropriate PPE use, it is also clear that this former employee does not understand CDC guidelines for personal protective equipment, nor does she understand how those rules are applied in healthcare settings, especially during a pandemic."

Dennis disagrees, adding that she is well-versed on CDC guidelines and that Sapphire of Tucson is not abiding by them.

"I've never been afraid of catching something in any of the facilities I have ever worked at, but in this facility I was afraid,"she stated.

As of last week, Sapphire of Tucson, told us that there were 57 patients and 38 employees who tested positive for COVID-19.

It is still unknown the number of patients who have died after contracting the coronavirus at Sapphire of Tucson. Neither the facility, nor the state or county health departments will release those numbers.  

Below is the complete statement from Sapphire of Tucson.

"The former employee interviewed by KVOA News 4 knows nothing of the current situation at Sapphire of Tucson. Although she worked here in the past, she returned to work for only one day since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Despite having been educated on appropriate PPE use, it is also clear that this former employee does not understand CDC guidelines for personal protective equipment, nor does she understand how those rules are applied in healthcare settings especially during a pandemic. Sapphire began planning for the pandemic before the state or even the CDC. In February, we began purchasing additional expensive PPE to ensure we would have an ample supply. There has never been a shortage of PPE at our facility. It is impossible to comment on all aspects of a story before it airs. For viewers with remaining concerns, we encourage you to be in touch with Sapphire directly."

Jeanine L'Ecuyer, Spokesperson for Sapphire of Tucson

Lupita Murillo

Lupita Murillo is an investigative reporter. She is part of the Digging Deeper team that uncovers important issues focusing on crime that affects the community.

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