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Another Virginia retirement community reports coronavirus cases as officials work to prevent more deaths

The Heatherwood Retirement Community reported 11 coronavirus cases Monday.

BURKE, Va. — Families are concerned for their loved ones as coronavirus cases spread through nursing homes in the DMV – impacting the most vulnerable and their caretakers.

Heatherwood Retirement Community in Burke, Virginia, is the latest long-term care facility in the Commonweath to report COVID-19 cases. A spokesperson said nine residents and two staff members have tested positive for the virus. The community said one staff member and three residents are in the hospital.

One of those residents is 74-year-old Rita Frances Smith, or "Frankie." Her daughter, Kim Long, said she was a lifelong smoker, beat lung cancer, and uses an oxygen tank to cope with her COPD.

She said she has been happily living in the independent section of the community for four years. This week, however, Long said she noticed something was off with her mom. 

“This last week, she started to tell me that she was having a little difficulty in breathing, but it being allergy season... she typically did have a little trouble this time [of year], so we were hoping that that was the case," she said. "So, we started the regimen of nebulizer treatments that she is able to do by herself.”

Within days, Long said she got suspicious that allergies were not the culprit. After hearing that one staff member had tested positive for the virus on Wednesday, she and her husband decided to bring her mom home Friday in the hopes of keeping her healthy.

“I brought her home. I called her doctor, and he asked me some questions, and he said I should call 911 as soon as possible," Long said. "She’s now in [INOVA] Fairfax Hospital. She’s in intensive care. She’s in one of the special negative pressure rooms, and she was positive for pneumonia. They told me we would have the COVID results in 24 hours, and they told me that Friday night. And, just about 9:30 this morning, they told me she was positive.”

Credit: Kim Long
74-year-old Rita Frances "Frankei" Smith poses with one of her grandchildren.

On Sunday, Long said, the hospital called with bad news.

“We got a call at 10 a.m. yesterday morning that I needed to get over there immediately, because it was going to be moments before her passing," she said.

Long said, miraculously, her mom was still alive when she went to see her both Sunday and Monday, and she's hoping the prayers she requested have been helping.

“It’s here. It’s in our community," she said. "My mother had never left… But coronavirus is invisible. You just don’t know if you’re spreading it.”

That is the problem officials are working to combat. A spokesperson for Heatherwood Retirement Community said in a statement Monday that they have followed protocols outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for over a month:

"All Heatherwood Community residents and staff are being closely monitored by our team and the Fairfax County Health Department. A Fairfax County Health Department nurse is on site daily. Our residents remain under isolation protocols in their apartments and all common areas are closed. We are also restricting Independent Living residents from leaving the community. These measures will remain in place until further instruction from Fairfax County Department of Health."

Virginia's Department of Health reported outbreaks in 53 long-term care facilities on Monday. State data showed 554 cases and 34 deaths in these centers.

On Friday, Virginia Governor Ralph Northam announced a new task force devoted to helping these facilities.

The Governor said its responsibility would be three-fold:

  1. Make sure facilities have the resources they need to fight the virus;
  2. Work with facilities to strengthen staffing and increase infection control measures;
  3. Make sure the public and facilities are getting the info and data they need about the virus.

“They need testing and PPE, and the staff are overworked," Northam said. "The people who live in long-term care facilities are already vulnerable to sickness, and now because of social distancing, they can’t even see their loved ones.”

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan announced a similar program earlier in the week, called "strike teams."

"We’re the first state in the nation to launch such a coordinate response effort," Hogan said Tuesday.

RELATED: Maryland creating 'strike teams' to help nursing homes battle coronavirus

Credit: Vonda Gainer
Doris Larmore, 72, sits in a wheelchair. She currently lives in the Larkin Chase Center in Bowie, MD.

Last week, Hogan said 90 long-term care facilities in Maryland had reported outbreaks, including one at Larkin Chase Center, where Doris Larmore used to live.

As WUSA 9 reported Sunday, her daughter said the 72-year-old died from the coronavirus early Easter morning.

"I just can't believe that she's not here," said her daughter, Vonda Gainer.

RELATED: Bowie nursing home resident dies of coronavirus a week after sharing her worries from inside

Larkin Chase Center said Monday that they have yet to receive help from the Governor's strike teams and issued this statement:

"All healthcare providers around the country are significantly challenged with PPE shortages, particularly face masks and gowns. This poses an increasing problem in nursing homes as this pandemic continues to expand, which will contribute to the spread. Up to this moment, we have had what we have needed to protect our staff, and have been able to obtain adequate supply. We continue to leverage all possible avenues to obtain supply, and currently have the ability to shift PPE around from location to location as needed -- and we are doing so on a daily basis. In addition, per CDC and FDA guidance, we have implemented steps to re-use and extend the use of facemasks over multiple shifts. But this is not a sustainable solution, so we are deeply concerned about PPE."

Back in Virginia, Kim Long said her mom had eaten Monday and was awake, so she's hoping she'll pull through.

"She's everything to me," Long said.

RELATED: One dead after 66 residents at a nursing home in Mount Airy test positive for COVID-19

RELATED: Virginia coronavirus updates: Modeling data shows surge in late April, early May

RELATED: Maryland coronavirus updates: Immediate state budget & hiring freeze, new PPE decontamination site as testing efforts increase

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