Nursing homes reach record number of new COVID-19 cases

AHCA/NCAL releases report with nursing home COVID cases reaching an all-time high // Photo courtesy of AHCA/NCAL

[Update: Thirty residents of the skilled nursing home at John Knox Village in Lee’s Summit, Missouri, have died of coronavirus-related causes since the pandemic began about 10 months ago—but most of the deaths have occurred since October. As KCUR’s Dan Margolies reports, the care facility is now experiencing the biggest COVID-19 outbreak in Eastern Jackson County, with 157 cases reported over the past 28 days.]

Yesterday, the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL) released a report showing that new COVID cases in U.S. nursing homes have reached a record number of weekly new cases this month. AHCA and NCAL represent more than 14,000 nursing homes and assisted living communities across the country, providing care to approximately five million people each year. Nursing home COVID-19 cases have surpassed previous peaks since the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) started tracking cases in nursing homes. 

Recent data released by Johns Hopkins University and the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) demonstrates how the rise in COVID cases in nursing homes reflects the rise in the general U.S. population. JHU reported that weekly new COVID cases in the general U.S. population rose by 140 percent to 572,613,527 new cases the week of November 1. A correlating spike in new cases in nursing homes occurred when cases in the surrounding community started rising back in mid-September.

Experts have noted this rise can be directly linked to the rise of cases in the area surrounding nursing homes. University of Chicago’s Tamara Konetzka, a nationally recognized expert on long-term care, recently said, “Trying to protect nursing home residents without controlling community spread is a losing battle.”

“Our worst fears have come true as COVID runs rampant among the general population, and long term care facilities are powerless to fully prevent it from entering due to its asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic spread,” says Mark Parkinson, President and CEO of AHCA/NCAL. “Our health care heroes are doing everything they can to prevent it from spreading further, but this level of COVID nationwide puts a serious strain on our workforce, supplies, and testing capacity. If everybody would wear a mask and social distance to reduce the level of COVID in the community, we know we would dramatically reduce these rates in long term care facilities.”

The Midwest has played a key role in this rise. During the first week of November, 47 percent of new COVID cases in nursing homes were from Midwest states, where there were major spikes in the community spread in the upper parts of the region. Overall, the Midwest region has seen a 200 percent increase in weekly COVID cases in nursing homes since mid-September.

Rise in nursing home COVID cases by region // Photo courtesy of AHCA/NCAL

Though there were seven weeks of declining cases in nursing homes through mid-September, nursing home cases began to increase as there was a rise in COVID cases across the country. New weekly cases in nursing homes grew by 73 percent nationwide between mid-September and the week of November 1.

The report also shows that COVID-related deaths in nursing homes have risen slightly. Though residents of long term care facilities account for only eight percent of the nation’s cases, they compose 40 percent of its deaths.

Mortality rates have decreased since the spring as development has been made in better understanding the virus and the government resources needed to help reduce the spread. However, industry leaders fear that the rising number of new COVID cases in care facilities will ultimately lead to an increasing number of deaths.

“We are especially concerned that this situation will only get worse with Thanksgiving just around the corner,” continued Parkinson. “The public must realize that their actions not only endanger our nation’s most vulnerable, but also trigger government lockdowns of facilities, keeping these residents from their loved ones. This is detrimental to their health, wellbeing, and happiness. We urge everyone to do their part to slow the spread immediately and exercise caution when celebrating Thanksgiving.”

Parkinson is also urging Congress to prioritize frontline health care workers and long term care residents during the lame-duck session. This week AHCA/NCAL released a list of actions that Congress should follow to help nursing homes and assisted living communities to respond to the rise in new cases.

In April, the CARES Act provided the $175 billion Provider Relief Fund. With much of this fund already having been distributed, additional funds are essential for health care providers as numbers continue to rise. Parkinson states health care providers, including long term care facilities, will need additional funds to continue the response to the COVID pandemic as numbers rise. The financial aid is crucial in helping long-term care facilities gain personal protective equipment, conduct regular testing, hire additional staff, and properly compensate current staff.

“Congress must fulfill its duty,” stated Parkinson. “Without adequate funding and resources, the U.S. is repeating the same mistakes made during the initial outbreak last spring and the major spike over the summer. We need Congress to prioritize our vulnerable seniors and their caregivers in long term care facilities, bypassing another COVID relief package during the lame-duck session on Congress.”

See the full report here.

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