Arizona protected nursing homes from liability, but did little to protect residents from COVID-19

Bill  O’Brien turned 75 years old in the ICU. Friends sang to him over FaceTime. He died a around two weeks later./Courtesy Shannon Parys

By Caitlin McGlade and Anne Ryman | Arizona Republic

Mark Miguel Jr. had lived at a Tucson nursing home since 2016, when a head injury left him unable to walk and impaired his speech.

His sisters, Priscilla and Drucilla, visited him regularly at Sapphire of Tucson Nursing and Rehabilitation, and in February shared a laugh when their 29-year-old brother asked for a cigarette.

Miguel had loved to smoke, but since his injury he hadn’t asked for a cigarette. Priscilla dashed to a convenience store to buy a pack of his favorite Newport menthols. Drucilla held the filter to his mouth. Then he asked for another.

They clung to that memory weeks later, as Sapphire and other long-term care facilities around the country closed in March to nearly all visitors as a precaution against the deadly coronavirus pandemic. Later that month, Sapphire experienced the state’s first large coronavirus outbreak at a long-term care facility.

Sapphire assured the family that healthy patients were being isolated from sick ones. But within two weeks, 74 Sapphire residents and employees had tested positive. Mark would die from the virus, along with at least 20 others.

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