Whistleblower accuses Minnesota nursing home of violating COVID-19 health regulations

St. Therese of New Hope, the site of one of the deadliest COVID-19 outbreaks in the state last year, directed its staff to violate health regulations designed to prevent the spread of the epidemic in long-term care facilities, according to a whistleblower lawsuit.

The suit, brought last week by a former campus administrator at St. Therese, alleges that top executives at the 258-bed nursing home told employees “to ignore and violate” state and federal guidelines governing visitations and the quarantine of newly admitted patients, even after more than 60 people who lived at the facility had died from the coronavirus.

The former administrator, Brooke Peoples, 39, of Minnetonka, said she was fired less than a month after she warned her superiors that the nursing home was putting patients and staff in danger, the lawsuit alleges.

“All of us have elderly loved ones, and none of us should have to worry that senior care facilities are following health guidelines to protect these loved ones,” said Lori Peterson, a Minneapolis attorney representing Peoples. “Nobody should be fired for standing up to protect residents and staff from serious illness.”

In a court-filed response to the lawsuit, St. Therese denied allegations that it violated health guidelines, while admitting that Peoples was terminated from her job on April 15, 2021. Administrators at the senior home, which is run by a nonprofit organization, declined to comment about the lawsuit, citing privacy concerns.

The allegations come nearly a year and a half after harrowing COVID-19 outbreaks began to spread through nursing homes and assisted-living facilities across Minnesota and the nation, prompting them to impose strict lockdowns that prevented residents from seeing their loved ones for much of 2020. Since the pandemic began, 4,597 residents of long-term care communities have died from COVID-19 — representing 58% of all virus deaths in Minnesota, state records show. Amid a surge of infections last fall, some facilities became so overwhelmed that they reached out to the Minnesota National Guard for emergency staffing assistance.

Large nursing homes like St. Therese were particularly vulnerable to the rapid spread of the airborne virus. Many patients have weakened immune systems and live in close proximity; in some cases, patients live two to a room, with shared bathrooms and only a curtain separating them. Nearly 50 residents of St. Therese died of COVID-19 by May of last year. As of last week, the nursing home had recorded 313 infections and 84 resident deaths from the virus — the second deadliest toll among long-term care facilities in the state, according to a state Health Department database.

Founded in 1968 and affiliated with the Catholic Church, St. Therese has a record of health and safety problems. In a 2018 inspection, the nursing home was cited 11 times for a variety of violations of health and quality-of-life standards. These included failing to properly empty and remove urinary drainage bags; failure to investigate bruising and alleviate pressure sores; and failure to provide routine personal grooming for residents.

In a February 2020 health inspection, St. Therese was cited for another 10 violations — including failing to follow proper hand-washing, glove usage and other hygiene protocols, which had the potential to affect more than 50 residents, staff and visitors, the inspection said.

The home was also cited for not ensuring that necessary health information was sent to a hospital where a patient had been transferred after falling and striking her head. The nursing home has maintained a strong infection-control record since last fall, with no violations found in two of its last three inspections, records show.

Despite its regulatory lapses, St. Therese has the highest overall rating (five stars) from the federal government’s Nursing Home Compare system, which considers inspections, staffing levels and quality of resident care.

In her lawsuit, Peoples alleges that St. Therese executives took a “lax approach to the pandemic’s deadly potential” and directed her and other staff to ignore infection-control guidelines from the state Department of Health as well as the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

These violations included allowing a parent of one of St. Therese’s managers to be admitted to the nursing home from a hospital without following federal quarantine guidelines — potentially exposing residents and staff to infection, said Peterson, her attorney. Peoples also alleges that a lack of communication between executives at St. Therese delayed the rollout of new infection-control measures.

“A toxic, hostile work environment … caused an interruption in communications and teamwork when it was needed most: during a pandemic,” the lawsuit says.

Within weeks after reporting her concerns, Peoples was fired by the chief executive of St. Therese — and then falsely told that her termination was due to a loss of confidence in her leadership ability, the lawsuit states. Peoples said her firing violates the Minnesota Whistleblower Act, which prohibits employers from retaliating against staff who report violations of law.

Peoples said the stated reasons for her dismissal are contradicted by a series of glowing job performance reviews that she received since she began working at the nursing home in 2017.

Her lawsuit contains excerpts from the reviews, in which Peoples was repeatedly praised for her diligence and for maintaining strong employee retention. On Feb. 1, just 2 ½ months before her dismissal, Peoples was promoted to executive director and campus administrator and received a bonus as well as an annual raise, the lawsuit said.

Peoples, who declined to comment for this article, is asking a judge to order St. Therese to reimburse her for the lost pay and other losses related to her termination.

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