ATLANTA — JoeAnn Snead was a beautiful soul, her family says, an 83-year-old great-grandmother-to-be who was a treasured member both of her family and of the deaf and hard-of-hearing community.
She loved to teach sign language. She loved her church community. When she moved into the Arbor Terrace at Cascade senior living community in early March, she was looking forward to living an active life of bingo and socialization.
She was, her daughter said, someone who touched people, a "mother figure to anyone she came in contact with."
She moved in on March 9, just three days before the facility placed restrictions on visitors as the coronavirus pandemic mushroomed. According to the lawsuit, her positive test result for the virus was confirmed roughly two weeks later, on March 24.
She died about a month later, on April 21, due to complications of COVID-19. Her family held a "quiet graveside service to wish her farewell" six days later.
Snead's family is among a handful now suing Arbor Terrace at Cascade, where at least 16 residents have died. Their lawyers allege the facility was waging a "PR campaign" to downplay the seriousness of the outbreak, even as they knew it was spreading.
"This facility promotes itself as a safe haven for seniors to live out their golden years, and based on those representations Ms. Snead's family obtained enrollment for her care at Arbor Terrace at Cascade. When you stand outside at the facility, its a very tranquil peaceful looking facility," the family's attorney, Harold Spence, said Friday. "But it offers a shocking contrast to what was actually going on inside."
According to the Georgia Department of Community Health's daily long-term care facility report, dozens of residents and staff have tested positive for COVID-10 at Arbor Terrace at Cascade.
But, according to the family's lawyers, as it began to spread, the facility told a very different story. Spence said a "senior living blog," which the facility published as a kind of newsletter, was as recently as three weeks ago "telling residents and their families that there was no reason for them to move from Arbor Terrace at Cascade based on news reports of outbreaks in a few nursing homes."
11Alive first reported on the situation at the home well before then, on March 31, when there were just seven confirmed cases there. To date, there have been 70 confirmed resident and staff cases at the facility.
But on April 10, Spence said, the blog said it was still "unadvisable at this time for any residents to move out" and that "it would be extremely difficult for them to take family members out and achieve the same high level of infection prevention control that they were exercising at Arbor Terrace at Cascade."
"But while these representations of, 'We've got it under control, don't take your relatives away, there's nothing to worry about,' were being made, what is it that we know that Arbor Terrace at Cascade knew?" Spence said. "They knew that by that time that at least 29 of their residents had tested positive for COVID-19. They were aware that there had been deaths due to COVID-19 by that time. They were aware that a number of their own staff members had tested positive."
"Yet despite all this, they were making these false assurances to the residents and their families," the attorney added.
According to Spence, the lawyers have filed claims of gross negligence and are seeking punitive damages in the suit. A copy of the suit says the family is asking for damages that include "the full value of Ms. Snead’s life."
They allege negligence that included staff failing to wear proper PPE, allowing asymptomatic staff who had been exposed to the coronavirus to continue to work, and failing to adequately restrict visitation.
"While the coronavirus raged throughout Arbor Terrace and numerous residents died, The Arbor Company projected a misleading, 'We’ve got this thing under control,' kind of calm with its public assurances that it had in place effective infection prevention and control procedures and had stepped up those procedures in response to the presence of the coronavirus within its facility and among its residents and staff," the suit states.
Snead's daughter Catolyn Merriweather said the family was "devastated by what happened and what did not happen."
"We entrusted our loved one to Arbor Terrace at Cascade and my conversation with them was that, 'I want you to return my mom back to me the way that I dropped her off,'" Merriweather said. "We laughed about it and they said they would, but that didn't happen."
The family is asking Gov. Brian Kemp to shut the facility down, "as people are still dying and families are continuously being affected."
Arbor Company president Judd Harper forwarded a statement to 11Alive News on Saturday:
“This is an exceptionally difficult time for our state and, sadly, for our beloved residents and staff at Arbor Terrace Cascade as we face this unprecedented global pandemic. While we cannot discuss ongoing litigation, what we can tell you is that the safety and wellbeing of the residents and staff of our assisted living community is always our first priority. To prepare for COVID-19, we closed the community to all visitors except essential personnel and implemented safety measures recommended by the CDC and local health authorities. These continued safety measures include daily symptom screening of all residents and staff, the required use of PPE by all residents and staff, enhanced cleaning procedures, initial COVID-19 testing for residents and staff and requiring residents to quarantine in their residences.
Through frequent letters to residents as well as a dedicated COVID-19 page on our website, we have been providing updates to communicate how our community is responding to the pandemic. To support our staff and retain the excellent caregivers we have in place, we increased paid sick time, provided wage increases and paid for childcare when schools closed. Despite all our pandemic readiness and heightened efforts, this is a disease that disproportionately impacts the elderly and those with severe underlying medical conditions. We are navigating uncharted waters caring for those most at risk for tragic outcomes and our hearts and prayers go out to our Arbor Terrace families and staff.”
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