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WGLT's reporting on the coronavirus pandemic, which began in McLean County in March 2020.

911 Calls Show Nursing Home Outbreak Unfolding In Slow Motion

Ryan Denham
Marlene Cowans-Hill is one of nine residents of the Bloomington Rehab nursing home who've died after contracting COVID-19. She died May 15.

For one week in mid-May, the staff at Bloomington Rehabilitation and Health Care Center found themselves calling 911 again and again.

They had a COVID-19 outbreak, and it was getting worse. At least a dozen times an employee called for paramedics to come and take a deteriorating patient to the hospital. All those calls from Bloomington Rehab to 911 that week were nearly identical—except for one.

It came from 72-year-old Marlene Cowans-Hill. She called 911 for herself on Tuesday, May 12, just two days after the first five cases were reported at Bloomington Rehab.

“Can’t somebody help me?” Cowans-Hill told the 911 operator. “I can’t breathe. I can’t catch my breath. I can’t catch my breath; I need to go to the hospital.”

The 911 operator dispatched paramedics, but Cowans-Hill stayed put at Bloomington Rehab. Two days later, on May 14, as testing turned up even more cases at the nursing home, an agency nurse called 911 on Cowans-Hill’s behalf. The nurse said “they just the results back” and Cowans-Hill was positive for the coronavirus. Her oxygen was down. She was shivering. Her head hurt.

“She is declining quickly,” the nurse said of the patient in Room 16.

The nurse's full 911 call.

Cowans-Hill was transported to OSF St. Joseph Medical Center in Bloomington. She died the next day, May 15. The same day, the McLean County Health Department disclosed that 36 people at Bloomington Rehab had tested positive. That would later climb to 59, including over half the residents. Cowans-Hill was one of the nine residents who died, as well as certified nursing assistant Pamela L. Hair.

The 911 calls were obtained by WGLT through a Freedom of Information Act request. They show a public health crisis unfolding slowly over the course of a week at a nursing home that struggled to provide quality care and adequate staffing even before the virus hit, according to government inspections.

The 911 calls reveal staff working under incredibly difficult circumstances as the virus spread. They asked again and again for declining patients to be taken to the hospital.

On the same day Cowans-Hill called on herself, a nurse dialed 911 for an 88-year-old resident in the “COVID isolation hallway.”

“We actually have a COVID-positive patient right now, and we can’t keep her stats up. She keeps dropping. Her temp’s up to 102. We need to send her in,” the nurse said.

At other times, the nurses even looked out for incoming paramedics.

“Make sure they’re prepared to dress for possible (COVID). We’re starting to get results in,” a nurse said after calling 911 when a 72-year-old resident became unresponsive.

Long-term care facilities across the country have been hard-hit by the coronavirus. Of Illinois’ 6,671 deaths related to COVID-19, over half are tied to long-term care facilities.

Peoria-based Petersen Health Care owns Bloomington Rehab. Senior Vice President of Operations Greg Wilson said Monday he wasn't familiar with Cowans-Hill’s case specifically, nor would he be allowed to share information about it if he was.

“In general, the decision to transfer a nursing home resident to the hospital is ordered by their physician in consultation with clinical staff,” Wilson said via email. “In some instances family, the resident, or both may also be involved.”

WGLT asked, is it uncommon for a resident to call 911 for herself?

“I would think that would be unusual,” Wilson said.

It may not have been surprising that Cowans-Hill would try to take matters into her own hands. She was “very outspoken and a fighter to the end,” according to her obituary. She was survived by her longtime husband, daughter, and an extended family.

Cowans-Hill’s family referred questions about her case to Chicago attorney Steve Levin, whose firm handles nursing home abuse and neglect cases. Levin said they’re gathering and reviewing records related to her case, including the possibility her symptoms were ignored or her move to the hospital was unnecessarily delayed.

Illinois nursing homes enjoy fairly broad legal immunity from COVID-related civil liability, thanks to an executive order signed by the governor in April. That degree of immunity, which has drawn criticism, does not cover “cases of gross negligence or willful misconduct.”

It’s unclear how the coronavirus made its way into Bloomington Rehab. The outbreak happened in May; the nursing home stopped allowing visitors in mid-March.

Wilson said the working theory is that an asymptomatic employee or other health care professional brought it in. “I don’t know if anyone will ever know for sure,” Wilson said.

There are no longer any active cases at Bloomington Rehab, he said. Meanwhile, a new state requirement to test all residents and staff at long-term care facilities already has turned up new cases in McLean County. Bloomington Rehab remains the worst local outbreak to date.

We’re living in unprecedented times when information changes by the minute. WGLT will continue to be here for you, keeping you up-to-date with the live, local and trusted news you need. Help ensure WGLT can continue with its in-depth and comprehensive COVID-19 coverage as the situation evolves by making a contribution.

Ryan Denham is the digital content director for WGLT.