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BURLINGTON — Betty LaBombard died without ever knowing she had the coronavirus.
The 95-year-old Burlington Health & Rehab resident had a slight cold on Tuesday, March 19, but it was “nothing severe, nothing to worry about, staff assured her niece Holly Barrett-Willard.
The following day, LaBombard’s oxygen levels plummeted. She died around 1 p.m. on Thursday, March 21.
It was a rapid downturn for LaBombard, a lively woman who frequented Burlington Health & Rehab’s social events and just days before had seemed to be in good health. “She just turned 95, and you wouldn’t even know it,” said Barrett-Willard. That was the hardest part, she added — “we all saw her, and to see her and then have her pass away three days later. … None of it [made] sense to anybody.”
It was only on Thursday afternoon that Barrett-Willard and her family members learned that LaBombard had tested positive for COVID-19. They grew alarmed at the lack of precautions that had been taken in the days leading up to her death. Barrett-Willard had visited LaBombard in her aunt’s final hours, she said. LaBombard’s roommate wasn’t given a mask or protection; staff and residents were also exposed to her, according to Barrett-Willard.
Since LaBombard’s death, the disease has swept through the Pearl Street facility, which serves 90 residents. She was the first of 17 to test positive for the virus, and one of seven who die from it. Ten staff members have also tested positive.
Burlington Health & Rehab has become a hotbed of the state’s epidemic, where 158 people have contracted the virus, and nine have died.
The outbreak has sparked criticism from frustrated family members and fearful residents, who wonder whether Health & Rehab staff members followed protocol and whether administrators could have acted more quickly to protect those under their care.
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Following LaBombard’s death, Burlington Health & Rehab quarantined 14 staff members.
On Tuesday, they moved 10 short-term residents to a hotel. That plan was derailed after staff realized the residents had been exposed to someone who had tested positive for the coronavirus, and they were quickly moved to the University of Vermont Medical Center. Another Burlington Health & Rehab resident who was transferred to the South Burlington Residence at Quarry Hill elder care facility also tested positive for the virus this week.
Lori Mayer, a spokesperson for Genesis HealthCare, a national company that owns Burlington Health & Rehab, said staff had done everything in their power to prevent the spread of the disease. “All staff are wearing the required personal protective equipment for their own safety and the safety of those they care for,” she said in an email. “This virus does not discriminate. These doctors, nurses, nurses’ aides and others are putting themselves in harm’s way to care for their patients and residents day in and day out.”
A staff member echoed that sentiment in a social media post in which she reported that she had tested positive.
“It was with little hesitation that I entered into rooms of patients suspected of having, then known to have the virus,” she wrote. “I did my very best to follow precautions absolutely. Still, the tenacious little germ found its way through some corner of mask or gown, into my lungs, and here I am.”
LaBombard had lived in the facility for three years. The Burlington native was a socialite, with a deep familiarity with the city and its residents; she had worked as a waitress for F.W. Woolworth on Church Street for decades, Barrett-Willard said, and she sang in her church choir.