Story at a glance
- A study from the American Health Care Association suggests sharp upticks in COVID-19 cases among nursing home residents.
- One of the first outbreaks in the U.S. was at a nursing home in Washington.
Coronavirus case numbers spiked in nursing homes across the country by nearly 80 percent in the early part of the summer, largely driven by spread across the South and West, the Associated Press (AP) reports.
Based on new data compiled in a situation report, nursing homes continue to be particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 outbreaks, both due to its older population and congregate setting.
In Kirkland, Wash., the first epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., the nursing home facility Life Care Center saw multiple coronavirus outbreaks among its residents and staff.
Despite lockdown measures and public health protocols instituted in most U.S. nursing homes, these long-term care centers still overrepresent coronavirus cases in the U.S.; AP notes that while nursing home populations compose less than 1 percent of the U.S population, they make up more than 40 percent of COVID-19 deaths.
“The case numbers suggest the problem is far from solved,” Tamara Konetzka, a research professor at the University of Chicago specializing in long-term care studies, told reporters. Konetzka was not involved with the study.
Data from the study, commissioned by the American Health Care Association (AHCA), revealed that coronavirus infections in nursing homes rose by 77 percent when comparing month-over-month data from June 21 to July 26.
This amounted to a total of 9,715 confirmed cases recorded on the week of July 26.
Fatalities from coronavirus infections among nursing home residents also increased to 1,706 by the week of July 26, about a quarter jump from the week of July 5.
Konetzka and other industry experts theorize that the coronavirus enters nursing homes through staffers who are infected and do not know it, bringing the virus into their workplace. Experts warn that when a community encounters an outbreak, nearby nursing homes are likely to be affected.
They point out the rampant case growth across Sunbelt states like Southern California, Arizona, Florida and Texas contribute to outbreaks inside nearby nursing homes.
“As the virus surges in Sunbelt states, there’s no reason to think it won’t affect nursing homes in the same way it did in states that surged earlier,” Konetzka said to AP. “We have learned some things about how to minimize the effect in nursing homes, but providers need the tools to implement those best practices. This is the critical role of federal policy that has not been fulfilled— securing supply chains for (personal protective equipment) and rapid testing.”
In August, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) announced that the next CARES Act will allocate a total of $5 billion to nursing homes.
“By linking these funds to performance in controlling COVID-19, we are providing powerful tools and incentives for nursing homes to better protect their residents from the virus,” HHS Secretary Alex Azar said in the press release. Part of this funding will go specifically toward machines to quickly screen nursing home residents for COVID-19.
Industry insiders say the issue is centered around health protocols. Mark Parkinson, president of the AHCA, confirmed Konetzka’s theory. He also noted that mitigating efforts may not be enough to stop it.
“The data indicate that this virus is spread by asymptomatic carriers and that even perfect infection control wouldn’t have stopped it,” Parkinson said to reporters. “The challenge with this virus is that because it is spread by asymptomatic carriers the prior infection control procedures didn’t work.”
He acknowledged that the Trump administration’s plan to deploy rapid coronavirus screening tests could provide significant help, but that “there’s still a long way to go.”
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued guidelines to help long term care facilities prepare and prevent coronavirus outbreaks, including restricting visitation and using personal protective equipment while in the facility.
The AHCA recommends that states experiencing high rates of virus transmission and outbreaks enforce mask mandates, noting its indirect benefits on nursing home populations.
“There’s a direct link between COVID in the community and COVID in the building,” Parkinson said.