Covering Coronavirus: A Midnight Rescue


NATASHA ROLAND: Hi, my name is Natasha Roland. I read an article about Queens Adult Care Center. I wanted to speak to somebody in reference to that article because I have to go in there to take my father out. My dad hadn’t eaten in a week, he couldn’t move, they were not giving him his medication….


RANEY ARONSON: That voicemail was to ProPublica reporter Joaquin Sapien….   Just the week before, he’d written a story about coronavirus racing through an adult care facility.


JOAQUIN SAPIEN: As soon as the coronavirus hit New York I started to think about the people that I had been covering for the last several years, people who are extremely susceptible to this disease. They have mental illness, many of them are elderly with underlying health conditions. And that sort of describes the Majority of the residents at the Queens Adult Care Center.


ARONSON: Joaquin has been reporting for ProPublica and FRONTLINE on how the virus is impacting places like the Queens Adult Care Center, and, what happened to Natasha Roland’s 82-year-old father.  


I’m Raney Aronson, executive producer of FRONTLINE, and this is the FRONTLINE Dispatch.


FUNDER: The FRONTLINE Dispatch is made possible by the Abrams Foundation, committed to excellence in journalism, and by the WGBH Catalyst Fund. Support for the FRONTLINE Dispatch also comes from the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center. Early detection is key to catching and treating many cancers. You can learn more about the innovative programs at mass-general-dot-org slash-cancer, Mass General Cancer Center, everyday amazing. 


ARONSON: Hey, Joaquin, thanks for joining me on the Dispatch. 


SAPIEN: Sure. I'm happy to be here. Thanks for having me. 


ARONSON: Yeah. So you know, the Queens Adult Care Center first came up of course in our reporting that you did with FRONTLINE and ProPublica in 2019. I was so moved by that film and that effort. And I wanted you to talk about that reporting and how it led to your most recent story. 


SAPIEN: Sure. So at the time, I was working on stories about care for people with mental illness in New York City, and I was looking really closely at what are known as adult homes, which are scattered throughout sort of the outskirts of New York. And they were originally meant as an alternative to the large state psychiatric hospitals that were sort of plagued by scandal. And these homes were supposed to be more integrated into the community and give people with mental illness a chance at sort of living outside of an institution, but they sort of descended into centers of abuse and neglect over the years, and one of the biggest in the city was called the Queens Adult Care Center.


ARONSON: So Joaquin, the coronavirus hits, and of course, we're wondering, you know, what was it like, for the people living the Queen's Adult Care Center and what's going on there now? 


SAPIEN: Sure. So as soon as the coronavirus hit New York I started to think about the people that I had been covering for the last several years because they definitely fall into that category of, of the most vulnerable people who are extremely susceptible to this disease. On top of that, Elmhurst became the epicenter of the epicenter in New York City. You know, the hospital there made national news with its line of sick patients winding down the sidewalk, trying to get help for coronavirus, and I knew that the Queen's Adult Care Center was only a block away. So I started calling some of my sources there, longtime residents, people who work there to try and find out what's going on because I was having a lot of difficulty getting straight answers from the administration. But the people who were working on the ground directly with these residents, and the residents themselves, were saying, Yeah, the virus seems to be spreading really quickly. People are going in and out of the hospital constantly, and sometimes they're not coming back. And, of course, it was only a matter of time before it had its first case, and sadly, its first death.


ARONSON: So you go ahead and you publish a story. Tell us about what was in the story and then what happens next. 


SAPIEN: So the first story looked at workers who were scared to go to work, concerned that the presence of the virus inside the facility is larger than the administration is recognizing, and they're not being properly equipped to do their job safely. And it's just clear that there isn't a strong plan in place to keep everyone safe. And someone has already died of the virus there. And that hasn't been shared with many of the people who live there, or their relatives. 


ARONSON: Okay, so this story publishes


SAPIEN: So the story publishes and within two days, I get a really distressing voice message from the daughter of a resident there. 


ROLAND: Hi, my name is Natasha Roland. I read an article about Queens Adult Care Center. I wanted to speak to somebody in reference to that article. 


SAPIEN: The voicemail starts off pretty calm. But the voice on it quickly cracks when she starts to describe this harrowing experience she had of going to get her father.


ROLAND: I had to go in there to take my father out. My dad hadn't eaten in a week, he couldn't move. They were not giving him his medication. My dad is now at Presbyterian Hospital and he tested positive for coronavirus. He is 82-years-old, he’s a diabetic. He has lung disease.


SAPIEN: And it was just impossible to listen to without feeling empathy and some degree of panic myself knowing that this is probably going to happen to other people if we don't shine a light on it. 


ARONSON: So, you get this voicemail, what do you do next? 


SAPIEN: So, I call her back. 


SAPIEN: The reason why I'm calling you is because I got this really distressing voicemail from you yesterday, and it sounded like you had just read my story. 


ROLAND: Yes, someone sent the story to me. And I was so angry. 


SAPIEN: And, I learned more details of her story. And she starts to tell me how, you know, for weeks she had talked to the administrator of the home and other people who work for the staff there. And all of them were sort of reassuring her that her father was fine. 


ROLAND: Even told me that that's probably the safest place for him, is to stay there.


SAPIEN: That even though Elmhurst Hospital was just a block away, there were no coronavirus cases in the facility. And the one person there that got it, got it while they were in the hospital and they are being treated at the hospital. 


ROLAND: And in that conversation I had asked, ‘Well do you have any cases of the virus now?’ They told me no. I said, ‘You don't have any cases?’ I asked him again. He was like, ‘No, there was one lady who tested positive but she was in a hospital and she got from the hospital.’ So he led me to believe that the lady was not there.


SAPIEN: And she was saying, ‘Look, if you have, if there's any coronavirus cases in that facility, I will come now and take my father out of there. You know, I'll find another place for him to live. He has health problems. He has lung disease. 


ROLAND: He's a diabetic. My dad is not well. 


SAPIEN: ‘He is 82-years-old, like I don't want him to die in that home of coronavirus, I will come and get him.’ 


Roland: Then my dad started calling me saying he was not feeling well. 


SAPIEN: And they were telling her, ‘No, he's fine.’ 


RANEY: So she’s starting to get a clearer picture from what’s actually happening with her dad and that’s when Natasha was able to get in touch with a worker there. How did that happen and what does Natasha say the worker told her?


SAPIEN: As the situation progresses and she continues to learn about how Elmhurst is becoming this place where the rate of infection is just skyrocketing, she keeps making these calls. And eventually she gets through to a worker. 


ROLAND: And she said, ‘Look, Natasha,’ she was like, ‘You need to get your father out of here.’ 


SAPIEN: And according to Natasha, that worker told her that the aides  weren't going into the rooms anymore because they were so scared of getting coronavirus. And so when the aides showed up at work, they would just lock themselves into an office all day, and that there were a lot of people who were sick with coronavirus. And there were ambulances coming in and out of the home constantly. And Natasha is very confused by this because she had been told by the administrator that essentially everything was fine.


ROLAND: They lied to me. They been knew that this virus was in there, they been knew people tested positive. Why would they lie to me? Why would they lie to me? Why would you lie to me? 


ARONSON: I know that the worker later told you she didn’t remember saying some of this — only that the conditions were bad. But Natasha says after the call she basically decided she should go pick up her dad? 


SAPIEN: So, she started to make arrangements to get him out the following day. She has this conversation with the worker on Saturday night, she starts setting up a time to pick him up on Sunday. 


Roland: Now at this time, I'm talking about just bringing him home with me. I'm still thinking my dad is not sick with no virus. 


SAPIEN: And, you know, there's things that you have to do to get somebody out of a home like this, and it can't just happen overnight. And so on Sunday, the staff at the home explains to her like, ‘We're short staffed, we can't get his medication together. Can you just give us one more day and pick him up tomorrow morning, Monday morning?’ And she agrees to do that very reluctantly. But then she gets another phone call. 


ROLAND: Then I got a phone call from Annetta. 


SAPIEN: Annetta King-Simpson, her father's girlfriend in the facility. 


ANNETTA KING-SIMPSON: How this all started was I started noticing that he wasn't feeling right. 


SAPIEN: And because the aides there were so scared of going into the rooms of these residents, Annetta had taken on the role of an aide and mind you, she's a resident herself. 


KING-SIMPSON: I started noticing he was like breathing funny. And that happened at around one or two o'clock in the morning. And I had to call his daughter. 


SAPIEN: And she calls Natasha and says, ‘Your dad has just stumbled into my room. He's saying he can't breathe.’


KING-SIMPSON: I visibly saw Roland going down in front of my face. He couldn't breathe. And I kept calling the desk, telling them to send them upstairs with his medicine and they were not coming. They weren't coming. I guess they were afraid, you know.


SAPIEN: ‘I think he needs medical care right away.’ 


ROLAND: ‘We keep calling for them to check on your dad, they're not coming down here, so I checked his sugar myself.’ I said, ‘You checked my father's sugar? Why aren’t they coming in there to check up on my father's sugar?’ 


SAPIEN: And Natasha is still thinking, ‘But there's no — he doesn't have coronavirus. The home is telling me he doesn't have coronavirus. So don't take him to Elmhurst Hospital.’ ‘Because if he doesn't have it now, I don't want him to get it there.’


ROLAND: And at that point is when me and my brother got up, got dressed and was like, ‘We gotta go get him now.’ 


ARONSON: So she takes matters into her own hands.


SAPIEN: She races over in her car to come and get him. 


ROLAND: Because when you call the ambulance, they only wanted to take him to Elmhurst Hospital, and I was not gonna let my dad go to Elmhurst Hospital. So I went to the facility. 


SAPIEN: And the staff is outside and one of the staff members is telling her, ‘Look, I can't let you in there. You know, I'm not supposed to allow any visitors. And then murmurs to her sort of to the side, like, ‘Go get your dad.’ 


KING-SIMPSON: How do we get him out? She said, ‘Annetta, I'm coming in because I don't see nobody at the desk right this second. I'm coming to get my father.’ 


SAPIEN: So she storms in there and she's wearing a mask and gloves and she finds her father, basically gasping for air. His chest is heaving. His eyes are bulging. He has this surgical mask askew across his face looking like he was gonna die on the spot. And his girlfriend, Annetta is clinging to him and panicking and they get him in their car, the Rolands do, and take him to New York Presbyterian in Manhattan and get him on an oxygen tank.


ARONSON: Wow, what do the doctors say? 


SAPIEN: The doctors apparently told Natasha that he had lost a lot of weight since his last visit there. This is where he goes for his regular checkups, and that he tested positive for coronavirus and explained to her that she had likely saved her father's life. 


ARONSON: So Joaquin, they say he's positive. And then what happens to her father next? Is he back at the home? Is he with his daughter? What's he… how's he doing now? 


SAPIEN: He's since stabilized and was taken to a rehabilitation center elsewhere in the city. And the way Natasha describes it, he was basically learning how to breathe again inside this rehabilitation center. And now they face a really difficult question about where do they take their father? Natasha doesn't necessarily want him to go back to the Queens Adult Care Center. But the family doesn't have a lot of options. You know, most people who live in adult homes live on the margins. These are homes that are paid for through a combination of state and federal dollars, social security and Medicaid. So there's not a lot of places for him to go. And while you know, his daughter is really disappointed with the treatment that he's received at the home, there are a lot of aspects of it that her father likes. I mean, it's not a very restrictive place like a nursing home, he can, he has some degree of independence. He has a girlfriend there. She, as it turns out, also had coronavirus and was treated at the Javits Center, but has since recovered and has moved back into the Queens Adult Care Center. So they're trying to decide what to do and there's a lot of families out there who are facing, you know, a really difficult quandary about how best to care for their elderly loved ones in the age of coronavirus. 


ARONSON: Talk to me about how the home has responded to your reporting, especially as it regards this case. What have they said specifically? 


SAPIEN: They've called her allegations baseless. They say that her version of the story isn't true. But they won't say exactly what is inaccurate about it. 


SAPIEN: And so how did that feel for you? Because you'd been on the phone with the administrator and he's telling you everything's fine. 


ROLAND: It made me feel like I didn't do… what am I supposed to do for my dad? Because I believed them. So I'm like, did I mess this up? You know, but I'm calling and they're telling me my dad is okay, they’re telling me that my father is safe. So what's so crazy about this is that when I saw my dad, my dad had you know who has lost so much weight that your eyes look like this popping out of your head? It tore me up. I didn't even think no more. I'm just like in there, grabbing my dad like getting his clothes on, not one aide, no nurses aide was in there helping my dad. The lady Annetta was i n there helping my dad. 


ARONSON: Beyond this case, what are they saying about the coronavirus at the facility in general?


SAPIEN: What they've said to me repeatedly is that they're following all of the state and federal guidelines to keep their residents safe and that the aides are regularly seeing the residents and that they're doing everything that they can to, you know, curb the spread of the virus inside the facility. In the middle of my reporting, they hired a crisis communications person, a guy named Hank Sheinkopf and Hank refused to answer any questions about how many deaths had taken place in the facility, how many coronavirus cases had you know popped up in the facility. And they are required to share those numbers with the state. But the state is not giving them to me. But we have found a kind of like a back channel in a way through the City Department of Health because what would happen was that these family members, had, of relatives at the Queens Adult Care Center, had formed these alliances to advocate for their loved ones inside these facilities. And one of the things that they've done is go to a city councilman, a guy named Daniel Dromm, who they've tried to get to bring some attention to the home. And Dromm has written to the governor's office, he's written to the State Department of Health. He's written to the City Department of Health. And he found out in the middle of this month, that there were 12 deaths and 44 positive cases, but he figured that out from the City Department of Health and not the State Department of Health, and so I got those figures from him. But you know, I still haven't been able to get anything directly out of the city or state. 


ARONSON: So, I wanted to know, I mean, this is one place, you know, and it's really quite a story, but are you seeing this happening in other facilities that are similar? Are you seeing this being more widespread? We've heard a lot about nursing homes. But I'm just curious if you're seeing this in other facilities. 


SAPIEN: Well, for one thing, I think it's probably more widespread in the Queen's Adult Care Center than what those numbers suggest. Because the workers that I've talked to there, and the residents that I've talked to there say that there's been, you know, more than 20 deaths, and that there's a lot of coronavirus infections inside the facility. And there's a lot of people who show symptoms that haven't been tested yet. And so it sounds like in that facility, that's probably an undercount. But yeah, the Queens Adult Care Center is not the only place that's set up this way. There's lots of other facilities where people are free to leave in and out of these adult homes that have the same underlying health conditions. And given what we know about how quickly this virus can spread You know, it seems likely that it's infecting other places like this as well. And you know, we've all seen the coverage out of nursing homes, showing how many deaths can take place in a short period of time in these places. So, yeah, this problem is not isolated to QACC. 


ARONSON: Right. So what's next for you Joaquin? What do you think is next for you?


SAPIEN: You know, we're gonna stay tuned about what's happening at the Queens Adult Care Center, what's happening at some of these other facilities that I've covered over the years. I'm becoming a little bit more interested in what is happening in state government and why New York State had the response that it did to coronavirus you know, knowing how quickly and how devastating this virus you know, can spread and infect cities that are in fact even less dense than than New York City. So that's kind of what I'm starting to look at now. 


ARONSON: Thanks for joining us on the Dispatch Joaquin. We really appreciate it. 


SAPIEN: Sure. Yeah. Thank you for having me.


FUNDER: Support for the frontline dispatch comes from Mass General Cancer Center. When facing the unknown, it is often the small acts of courage that we experience in our daily lives that power us to face another day. We're all in this together.


ARONSON: Read Joaquin’s full story for FRONTLINE and ProPublica — and watch a short film documenting the investigation — at FRONTLINE dot org and ProPublica dot org. 


This podcast was produced by Max Green and James Edwards. 


Our production assistant is Lucie Sullivan.


Katherine Griwert is FRONTLINE’s editorial coordinating producer. 


Pam Johnston is our senior director of strategy and audience. 


Lauren Ezell is senior story editor. 


Sarah Childress is our senior editor. 


And Andrew Metz is our managing editor.


I’m Raney Aronson, executive producer of FRONTLINE. 


Music in this episode is by Stellwagen Symphonette.


The FRONTLINE Dispatch is produced at WGBH and powered by PRX.

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