Alto Lucero, now formally called Channel Island Post Acute Care, reported 39 residents had tested positive for COVID, and 32 of them had recovered. It remains unknown if several deaths there are COVID-related. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss (file)

About one quarter of the residents of the Alto Lucero senior care facility have tested positive for COVID-19, along with 22 members of its staff. The facility, now formally known as Channel Islands Post Acute, sits a stone’s throw from La Cumbre Plaza, and as many as three people are said to have died at the facility since the outbreak began in July. Some deaths were acknowledged by operations manager Najib Yamak, but he stated that it remained unknown if COVID-19 was the cause.

Yamak had finally responded to weeks of requests for information after the facility’s holding company, Ensign Services of San Juan Capistrano, directed reporters to him. Yamak wrote in an email, “Although we were able to remain COVID-19 free through mid July, one of our staff members developed symptoms and tested positive approximately one month ago.” According to Public Health’s COVID dashboard, the outbreak grew to 27 residents by July 28.

COVID is such an easily transmitted disease that Santa Barbara County has six congregate care facilities — among the 250 in the county — with outbreaks. Channel Islands has the distinction of having the largest number of infected residents. Positive facilities are tested weekly, Public Health has said, until the entire place goes two weeks with no negative cases. Yamak said his facility’s infection control follows all guidelines, employees are screened before every shift, and they’ve been able to fully use personal protective equipment throughout the pandemic.

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Channel Islands contains up to 156 elderly residents and provides in-house physical, occupational, and cognitive therapies, as well as hospice care. It got high marks for hygiene protocols and staff/patient rapport from one relative of a long-term resident who spoke with Independent reporters anonymously. Her brother had been moved to the COVID-negative side of the facility once he’d recovered from COVID-19, she said, and she had few complaints: “I’m not sure why they aren’t being transparent, but I find that disturbing!” she said.

Two people who spoke with reporters said COVID symptoms for their relatives were mild or nonexistent, though they had tested positive. One individual, who also requested anonymity, was frustrated that she hadn’t been able to arrange a video phone call since February; her relative is unresponsive with dementia, and she wants to see her. Since Channel Islands took over in January, she said, the administration and staff changed. It used to be that a nurse who answered the phone would simply start a video chat between the caller and the resident; now, emails passed back and forth for days in an attempt to make arrangements, she said.

A man who was at Channel Islands for short-term care said he left the facility as quickly as he could. A microbiologist before he retired, Ken Sterling became concerned when he saw the physical therapist reuse gloves and when he saw cockroaches and other bugs emerge from holes in the walls. He mentioned the bugs to the staff, who responded by placing pesticides in one wall bay. He decided not to discuss the gloves with the therapist, who was treating him with a TENS unit, which uses electricity to stimulate the muscles and to treat pain.

As of August 17, of the 39 residents infected, 32 had recovered. Of the 22 staffers infected, 19 had recovered. It remains unknown if those who died had tested positive for COVID-19.

At the Santa Barbara Independent, our staff is working around the clock to cover every aspect of this crisis — sorting truth from rumor.  Our reporters and editors are asking the tough questions of our public health officials and spreading the word about how we can all help one another. The community needs us — now more than ever — and we need you  in order to keep doing the important work we do. Support the Independent by making a direct contribution or with a subscription to Indy+.


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