As COVID-19 numbers rise across the country, nursing homes are preparing for another wave of cases to hit their facilities.
When nationwide case counts started climbing in late September, so too did cases in nursing homes, according to an analysis of data from CMS and Johns Hopkins by the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living. Nursing homes cases had been falling since a peak of 10,125 cases the week of July 26. Deaths were highest at the beginning of the pandemic when there were 3,222 COVID-19-related deaths in nursing homes the week of May 31; however, death data for nursing homes isn't available for the weeks prior.
"The No. 1 factor in keeping COVID out of our nursing homes so we can protect our vulnerable population is reducing the level of the virus in the surrounding community," said Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of AHCA/NCAL. "While the support we have received from Congress, the Administration and other public health agencies have helped our facilities fight this battle, we could still see another wave of COVID cases caused by the sheer volume of rising cases in communities across the U.S. given the asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic spread of this virus."
In the U.S., there were 252,929 confirmed cases of COVID-19, 143,848 suspected cases and 59,626 deaths in nursing homes, according to the latest available CMS data.
"Right now, we're not in an outbreak but we don't know when that outbreak will occur," said Janet Snipes, executive director of Holly Heights Nursing Center a 90-resident independent nursing home in Denver. "We're very concerned."
Holly Heights doesn't have any residents with COVID-19 right now but has been completing surveillance testing of staff after two asymptomatic employees tested positive at the end of September.
"We're very worried about it because we know as asymptomic people present, it's critical that we have the [personal protective equipment] we need," Snipes said. "We hardly had any PPE when we had our first outbreak, and it was devastating to residents and staff."
While Holly Heights has more PPE than it did when the pandemic started, it doesn't have different sizes of N95 masks, doesn't have fit testing for them and only has a few face shields, Snipes said. The facility has been stockpililing what PPE it can in preparation for an outbreak and the coming flu season but hopes the federal government will provide more testing, staff, resources and PPE.
The AHCA/NCAL and other long-term care advocates are calling on Congress to provide additional funding to better defend against COVID-19. "Without adequate funding and resources, the U.S. will repeat 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 nursing homes and assisted living communities, by passing another COVID funding package before they leave town for the elections," Parkinson said.
Katie Smith Sloan, president and CEO of LeadingAge, which represents not-for-profit nursing homes, said a new surge of COVID-19, coupled with the flu, could create greater shortages of personal protective equipment, testing supplies and trained staff.
"Americans are under increasing threat from a perfect storm of surging rates of COVID-19, the start of flu season and the failure of federal leaders to take needed action," said Smith Sloan said. "How will we ensure that older Americans and their care providers are not left out in the cold?"