Sad, angry and confused: Family says mother was never tested, but death certificate lists COVID-19

Updated: May 21, 2020 06:22 PM
Created: May 21, 2020 02:00 PM

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — The children of a woman who died inside a nursing home are broken-hearted. 

But they're also angry and confused because of what they say they were told by nursing home staff and what was written on their mother's death certificate. They asked News10NBC to get to the bottom of it. 


Saundra Peckham was 85 years old when she died inside The Hurlbut nursing home in Brighton in mid-April. Her family says she was never tested for COVID-19, but her death certificate lists that as the cause of death.

"This is my mother," Shelly Simmons said, holding a photo of her mom. "She's acting silly in this picture."

That's the kind of person the family says Peckham was. 

"Just being goofy, actually," her son, John Peckham, said. "A lot of times she was just goofy."

Saundra Peckham was born in Pennsylvania. She moved to Chili when her sister enrolled at Roberts Wesleyan College. She started a family and never left. She had 12 grandchildren and 11 great-grandchildren. 

Peckham loved to watch wrestling and her grandson race motocross. She rode to the races in the family camper. 

"And she would sit in the windows, the big windows, and watch my son race," Simmons said. 

Simmons shared her daily notes with me. The notes say Peckham had an upset stomach on April 8. By the end of the week, she wasn't answering her phone. By Saturday, staff told Simmons her mother was "under the weather." On Monday, she had a "little fever." By that afternoon, Peckham was dead. 

Her family says, despite their pleas, she was never tested for COVID-19. Then they got the death certificate, and COVID-19 was listed as the cause of death.

Simmons, her brother and sister-in-law called a social worker that day. 

"And then she says, 'well, we have to put that on all the death certificates,'" Simmons said. 

Brean: "And you all heard that in the phone call?"

Shelly Simmons, daughter: "Yes."

Pat Peckham, daughter-in-law: "Yes." 

Simmons: "Speakerphone."

I contacted Hurlbut Care Communities about this. In an email, owner Robert Hurlbut wrote, "All Hurlbut Care Communities are following State and Federal guidelines for certifying death records as outlined by the NYS Department of Health Bureau of Vital Records, in concert with the Bureau of Funeral Directing and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)."

I found the CDC's manual on determining the cause of death with coronavirus. It says patients should be tested, "but it is acceptable to report COVID-19 on a death certificate without this confirmation if the circumstances are compelling within a reasonable degree of certainty."

State records show seven residents have died from COVID-19 inside Peckham's nursing home. 

To add insult to injury, when Peckham's property was boxed up to be quarantined for a month, a staff member wrote her room number on the front of the picture hanger made by her grandson. The same thing also happened to the painting Simmons made that her mother had saved for 40 years. 

"Why couldn't you just do it on the back?" Simmons asked, holding onto the painting. 

I shared photos of the marking with Hurlbut Care Communities. 

In the same email, Hurlbut wrote, "We have the honor and responsibility of caring for one of society's most vulnerable populations and our healthcare heroes are working tirelessly around the clock to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all residents. During this unprecedented time, a staff member, in an attempt to keep the resident's belongings safe and known during an isolation protocol room change, made a very regrettable error. Our standing practice is to mark a label with the resident's room number and place it on the back of the items. We were saddened to learn this was done incorrectly and for the added pain the family is experiencing. Although nothing can replace these cherished items, we have offered to work with them to rectify the situation, as best we are able."

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