BILLINGS — The owners of the Canyon Creek memory care facility in Billings are standing behind a decision to opt out of free voluntary COVID-19 testing provided by the state during the peak of the pandemic.
By Tuesday evening, the outbreak at the facility claimed the lives of 13 residents.
The newest death was reported Tuesday, just one day after executives with Koelsch Communities, headquartered in Olympia, Washington, visited their Billings long-term care facility for the first time since a resident contracted the virus in late June.
On Tuesday morning, officials addressed questions about why the company decided to forgo the voluntary testing provided by the state of Montana. Gov. Steve Bullock cited Canyon Creek as an example in early July when he ordered all care facilities in Montana to conduct testing before they're allowed to accept visitors.
Officials with Koelsch said the voluntary tests would have only provided a "snapshot" of results for a small moment in time.
On June 30, one resident of Canyon Creek began to show symptoms of COVID-19. After that person's test came back positive, the facility tested everyone in early July, according to a spokesperson with Canyon Creek.
Those tests revealed that of the 59 Canyon Creek residents and 55 staff who were tested, 43 residents and 15 staff were positive for COVID-19 in mid-July.
As of Tuesday, officials said 43 residents still had active positive cases, while two had tested negative.
Koelsch Chief Operating Officer Eva Arant answered those questions on a conference call with Montana media Tuesday morning. Arant was also in Billings Tuesday visiting the facility with CEO Aaron Koelsch, who wrote a letter last week criticizing Bullock and media coverage of the outbreak.
MTN News requested comment from the organization while they were in town but was denied. “It's been a busy time and they come first,” said Arant. “We have to make sure that we're taking care of them.”
Arant says while keeping their primary focus on their staff and residents is why officials haven’t addressed questions publicly yet regarding why voluntary testing was initially refused.
“I believe 100 other communities in the state of Montana also refused testing,” she said. (Bullock said in an early July news conference that Canyon Creek was one of 40 assisted-living facilities in Montana to refuse testing. About 80 percent of the facilities in the state agreed to testing, he said then.)
Koelsch operates over 30 facilities in eight states and stands by its decision for multiple reasons, according to Arant.
Results take a while to come back (up to two weeks sometimes) and testing a dementia patient for COVID-19 could be complex and traumatizing, Arant said.
“Residents can be exposed or staff can be exposed the very next day, and test positive later in the week. So it would have only been a snapshot in time for that moment,” she said. “A swab test is invasive and to a person who does not understand what is happening."
"It can be very scary for them and traumatizing, and it's something that we have opted out of, when it was just a snapshot voluntary test to see where you're at in that moment, because of the undue hardship that we feel it puts on our residents.”
Arant said a female resident tested positive on June 30 a the hospital after showing symptoms of the virus. The state of Montana offered its free testing in mid-June.
However, the staff was instructed immediately to put policies in procedures into place with guidance and advice from Riverstone Health.
“We have put in place policies and procedures that we feel have protected our residents. I mean it is June 30 when Canyon Creek had their unfortunate outbreak. We've been in the throes of a pandemic since late February,” she said.