Coronavirus: Family demands criminal probe into Hayward nursing home where 9 have died

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By Annie Sciacca and Thomas Peele |  Bay Area News Group | April 13, 2020

Attorneys are calling for a criminal investigation into Gateway Care and Rehabilitation Center

HAYWARD, CA – APRIL 10: An ambulance paramedic cleans a carrier after taking a person into the Gateway Care and Rehabilitation Center in Hayward, Calif., on Friday, April 10, 2020. (Doug Duran/Bay Area News Group)

OAKLAND — The family of a man who died at a Hayward nursing home with the Bay Area’s largest outbreak of COVID-19 has hired a prominent civil rights attorney to explore possible legal action against the facility and is calling for a criminal investigation into the facility’s handling of the pandemic.

Attorneys John Burris and Adante Pointer will investigate the situation at Gateway Care and Rehabilitation Center in Hayward, where Costell Akrie, 87, was one of at least nine people who have died from COVID-19. It was revealed last week that at least 66 people inside that facility have been infected with the virus.

A spokeswoman for the Alameda County Health Department said Monday morning she could not provide an update on the the number of infections and deaths at the Hayward facility.

“These numbers are so shocking, an investigation is warranted,” Burris said in a written statement. “Notwithstanding the national epidemic and its seemingly disproportionate impact on African American men, something must be wrong when an African American elderly man enters a nursing care facility for treatment of one condition and later comes out dead with an entirely different condition. The family is rightfully concerned about whether Gateway Center ‘s care caused or contributed to Mr. Akrie’s death.”

Pointer said their investigation so far indicates that the facility urged staff to come to work who had tested positive for the virus.

Gateway administrator Andre Aldridge in a brief interview last week said the facility was struggling to get enough protective equipment such as masks and gowns for their staff. He said then that people in the facility with positive cases were being separated from those in the facility who had tested negative.

The operators “allowed staff to come to work without equipment,” Pointer said Monday. “That’s telltale proof of criminal negligence.”

He added that Akrie’s family members saw another patient being admitted to Gateway after his death, suggesting that even as they are overrun with the virus, more people are put at risk.

Burris and Pointer have filed a complaint with the California Department of Health alerting them to their findings so far, and Burris said Monday he will urge the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office to conduct a criminal investigation. A spokesperson for the District Attorney’s office did not immediately confirm if the office had opened an investigation.

Gateway is owned by Nadhi Inc. of Vacaville, which in turn is owned by Prema P. Thekkek and Anthony Thekkek of Alamo, according to public records. They did not immediately respond to a message Monday morning.

Kaiser Permanente sent Akrie to Gateway in early March for physical rehabilitation after experiencing episodes his family believes happened because of issues with his blood sugar when a doctor took him off a certain medication, according to an interview with his son, Scott Akrie.

Before that, he had appeared fine — reading three books per week and regularly exercising, Costell’s wife, Dianne Akrie, said.

Shortly after he arrived at Gateway, the facility went on lockdown, along with nursing homes across the country, to help curb the spread of the coronavirus. No visitors were allowed except in extreme, end-of-life situations, health officials urged.

At that point, they were about to send Costell home, his son said, but when a wound developed on his foot, they had to keep him there for treatment. At the end of March, he tested positive for COVID-19 as the virus swept through the nursing home’s staff and residents.

The family received only limited information. While Gateway staff told them early on that several others had also tested positive, the Akries didn’t know how extreme the situation had become until Costell’s death. Until then, they often weren’t able to reach Costell directly or the staff.

They’d call in and ask to be connected with the nursing staff or to his room, but the phone at the nurses’ station would ring for 15 or 20 minutes, Scott Akrie said. When his sister spoke to them, she was told that nurses were scrambling with caseloads of more than 26 patients each.

Still, when they were able to reach staff at the nursing facility, it seemed like their father was getting better, Akrie said. He had a low grade fever of just over 100 degrees. But they lacked a clear understanding of his condition for days while they could not get through to speak to him or his nurses. On Saturday, April 4, he died.

“I never got to say goodbye to my husband of 65 years or tell him I loved him,” said Costell’s wife, Dianne Akrie.

Other families also have struggled to get information. Union City Councilman Jaime Patino rushed over to check on his grandmother last week when news broke that more than 40 people at the facility had tested positive for COVID-19. His family had not been told by Gateway that so many people had contracted the illness, he said, and on Friday, his grandmother’s cough worsened to the point she was taken to an intensive care unit at Kaiser in San Leandro.

“We kept hearing everything was fine,” he said, noting the lack of information from the facility for family members. “You’re entrusting your loved ones to these facilities.”

Carol Soward, whose brother is in Gateway and has contracted COVID-19, said the facility appeared understaffed even before the pandemic. When she and her sisters visited – often daily — prior to the shutdown, they’d press a nurses’ call button in his room and sometimes waited an hour for anyone to respond, she said.

“If the recent news reports are true, that Gateway Center was understaffed, without the necessary protective gear such as masks and gloves, and the sick staff was compelled to work, it is unconscionable,” Burris said in a statement. “We believe that Hayward’s Gateway Rehabilitation should be closed and the owners may be subject to criminal prosecution.”

Nursing homes have been hit particularly hard by the pandemic. Experts say it’s been spurred by chronically understaffed facilities whose employees may not have been trained to handle the pandemic, including how to put on protective gear — if they can even obtain it. Low pay requires many to work multiple jobs across multiple facilities, potentially carrying disease as they go.

At San Jose’s Canyon Springs Post-Acute nursing facility, three people have died after testing positive for COVID-19, and another person died last week having never been tested for the illness. At the Orinda Care Center in Contra Costa County, at least three people have died among the 50 who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 there.

Contra Costa County health officials announced Monday a new order requiring residential care and other licensed healthcare facilities to screen all staff and visitors for signs of illness and wear masks. The order, which applies to nursing and senior care facilities, group homes, recovery homes and homeless shelters, also requires licensed care facilities to “minimize” staffing employees who work at multiple facilities, and to keep records of any employees who worked at another healthcare facility during the previous two weeks.

Beginning Tuesday, those facilities have to keep out visitors and staff who have had any symptoms of respiratory illness or fever in the previous week or who have a temperature of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.

Akrie’s family believes he contracted the virus from a staff member. While he had a roommate early during his stay at Gateway, he was alone in his room for weeks before his diagnosis, his son said.

Now, his family must grapple with their grief, even as they remain sheltered in place, without the closure of having said goodbye to the man his son described as “the nicest guy you could meet.”

Scott Akrie remembers his father as a strong man who “pulled himself up by the bootstraps.” An orphan from a young age, he persevered and joined the U.S. Air Force and soon after received two associates’ degrees, two bachelors’ degrees and a master’s degree. That led to a career later with United Airlines, where he was among the first black managers, his family said.

Costell and Dianne Akrie, of Hayward, were married for 50 years before Costell died from COVID-19 at a Hayward rehabilitation facility on Saturday, April 4, 2020. The Akrie family is calling for a criminal probe into Gateway Care and Rehabilitation Facility’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak. (Photo courtesy of the Akrie family)

He supported his community as a part of the Bay Area Urban League, led an effort to support building parks in East Oakland and helped develop an organization to give bicycles to kids who couldn’t afford them.

“He was honest, he was compassionate, he was good and he was kind,” his widow said Monday. “And he always fought for what was right for everyone, regardless of the cost.”

Scott Akrie said his family is mourning separately now, with him in San Diego and his mom in Hayward. It’s difficult, but they’re not willing to expose each other to the virus, after it killed his father. So they’ll have to wait to hold a memorial service.

“It’s like redefining how you have to mourn loved ones in today’s society here in the U.S. — definitely not something we’re accustomed to in what we do to celebrate life,” he said. “We’ve paid the price of coronavirus. No one wants to pay a greater price.”