On the last day of February, county officials in suburban Seattle went public with the news that the Life Care Center had become the center of an outbreak of the coronavirus disease.
That disclosure began setting off alarms at America’s elder care facilities, due to residents being at heightened risk because of their age and close living conditions. That included the renowned Motion Picture & Television Fund’s campus in the Los Angeles suburb of Woodland Hills, home to 250 entertainment industry veterans and retirees.
Bob Beitcher, president and CEO of the MPTF for the past decade, announced on March 6 that the nursing facility and retirement community would be quarantined starting on March 9. That meant that gatherings were eliminated, and new policies were put in place to keep contact between staffers and residents to a minimum. In addition, the MPTF instituted daily temperature checks for employees coming on to campus. Staff began delivering meals directly to the doors of residents, many of whom are doing their own cleaning.
“We were one of the earliest nursing facilities to go to quarantine,” Beitcher told Variety. “We had seen what happened in Washington. What we said was assume that everyone has tested positive and act accordingly. The problem was that no one was testing healthy people at that point. And we can’t quarantine the caregivers.”
Those testing failures contributed to tragedy and accelerated the spread of the deadly virus at the nursing home. The MPTF disclosed on March 31 that a resident had tested positive, followed by six more on April 3, along with eight primary caregivers. On April 7, 64-year-old resident John Breier died of complications from COVID-19, three months after he came down with pneumonia. He had lived with an MS diagnosis for over 25 years and had been a resident of the Mary Pickford House.
“We have worked our tails off so it was a punch to the gut when John Bleier died,” Beitcher said.
The next day, 80-year-old character actor Allen Garfield died. Longtime Disney animator Ann Sullivan, 91, became the third coronavirus victim on April 13. As of Wednesday, there were 162 residents at the residential campus and another 62 in the nursing facilities, with 14 who have tested positive in an isolation wing and two others in hospitals. Nine of the facility’s 400 employees have tested positive.
Beitcher laments the lack of testing kits during the early stage of the pandemic. He’s also upset that even after tests became more readily available, the results are still not known for up to a week.
“Three weeks ago, there was no testing available,” he noted. “We tested all 162 people in the residential facilities last week, but results are not available for at least five days. Welcome to our nightmare. We’re fighting an invisible enemy with our hands tied behind our backs.”
Beitcher stressed that the MPTF made a commitment to transparency in communications in early March to residents, their families and staff: “We talk to the families at least once a week and we have in-house programming that’s meant to be informative and fun three times a week for residents on the in-house channel 22 from 11 to 4 on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays,” he said.
The programming is called “Organized Chaos,” and is handled by Jen Clymer, director of media services. Tom Bergeron recently stopped by to emcee a game of “Celebrity Password.” “People have been calling to say ‘What can I do?’ So we’ll have more of that next week,” Beitcher said.
He’s pleased that Mayor Eric Garcetti’s office will deliver another 250 test kits on Thursday or Friday.
“Looking back, what would have really helped us would have been quick testing,” Beitcher said. “There’s a new situation every day. We have been considering setting up a third unit for people who have tested positive, but are asymptomatic.”
The MPTF was created in 1921 by Charlie Chaplin, Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, D.W. Griffith, Conrad Nagel, Milton Sills and Douglas Fairbanks, Sr., to offer assistance and care to those of limited means in the motion picture industry. In addition to the Woodland Hills campus, it has six other primary care facilities in the Los Angeles area. Its slogan is “We take care of our own.”
Beitcher became president and CEO in the aftermath of a 2009 decision by the MPTF to close some of its facilities due to rising costs and the recession. A $350 million fundraising campaign spearheaded by George Clooney and Jeffrey Katzenberg helped keep the MPTF facilities in operation. That was a crisis, this is a catastrophe, Beitcher said.
“I came in at a very uncertain time — and I look back and wish I had that back again,” Beitcher said. “That was a lot of hard work for six to nine months. But it’s nothing like this.”