In early March, state inspectors entered a sprawling nursing home in the rural southeast corner of King County where concerns over thin staffing were mounting just as COVID-19 began to spread across the state.
One resident inside the Enumclaw Health and Rehabilitation Center said she hadn’t been bathed for nearly three weeks after she first arrived, according to inspection records. Another described waiting roughly 15 minutes for help after her roommate fell on the floor, while others told of even longer waits for help, lasting 45 minutes or more.
“Sometimes there are so few people in the building,” the resident told inspectors, “if there were an emergency, it would be a calamity.”
Within weeks, coronavirus entered the nursing home, and workers scrambled to help ailing residents, as some got sick themselves. In all, the outbreak killed 26 people, according to the state.
As COVID-19 devastated nursing homes across the state, long-standing staffing woes created a perfect storm at many facilities at a time when workers were needed most. Even though inspectors had routinely found appalling instances of time-strapped staff and patient suffering over the years, Washington state hadn’t raised its standard for adequate staffing.
A Seattle Times analysis found that inspectors cited 118, or more than half, of the state’s skilled nursing facilities a total of 225 times for having insufficient or unqualified staff, according to federal data from 2018 through the start of the pandemic. The state rarely penalized nursing homes for these deficiencies, according to an analysis of thousands of pages of enforcement documents.
In dozens of interviews and a review of inspection reports, workers described poor wages