CORONAVIRUS

Feds to track nursing home coronavirus cases

Critics say steps so far not aggressive enough

Heritage Specialty Care in Cedar Rapids has became the site of the worst coronavirus outbreak at a long-term care facili
Heritage Specialty Care in Cedar Rapids has became the site of the worst coronavirus outbreak at a long-term care facility in Iowa. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

NEW YORK — Calling nursing homes ground zero of the coronavirus crisis, federal officials said Monday they plan to start tracking and publicly sharing information on infections and deaths in such facilities to help spot trends and early signs the virus is spreading in communities.

The move comes as critics, industry officials and local leaders have called for more aggressive actions by the federal government to track infections in homes and contain outbreaks by helping them get greater access to testing and masks, especially given the vulnerability of elderly residents.

“It’s our intention to make that information public,” Seema Verma, head of the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, said during a call with reporters, adding that details were still being worked out on when or how the information would be shared.

Because the federal government has not been releasing a count of its own, the Associated Press has been keeping its own tally from media reports and state health departments, finding at least 8,496 deaths linked to coronavirus outbreaks in nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

They include Heritage Specialty Care in southwest Cedar Rapids, a skilled nursing facility that has became the site of the worst coronavirus outbreak at a long-term care facility in Iowa.

More than 100 of its residents and staff have tested positive for COVID-19 since March 24. Eighteen residents have died as a result of the virus as of last Thursday, according to Linn County Public Health.

Iowa health officials do not name a long-term care facility as having an “outbreak” until at least three residents or staff there test positive. But the state’s long-term care ombudsman said facilities should be identified after just one positive case so advocates could help “early in the throes of the infection.”

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For the federal tracking of infections, Verma said homes could start reporting by the end of this week and that questionnaires from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will collect information on deaths as well as confirmed and suspected cases, including among workers. She also said nursing homes will be required to tell patients and family members within 12 hours of a confirmed infection.

Verma noted that federal surveillance of outbreaks at nursing homes will be important for reopening the country since infections in the homes could be early predictors of spread.

“It’s fair to say nursing homes have been ground zero” for the virus, Verma said, noting that the Life Care Center nursing home in Washington state became the first COVID-19 hot spot in the country. That outbreak claimed 43 lives.

Some of the biggest outbreaks since have included 55 deaths at a nursing home in New York’s Brooklyn borough, 49 at a home outside Richmond, Va., at a veteran’s home in Holyoke, Mass., and at least 40 deaths each at five homes in outer boroughs of New York.

Experts say the outbreaks have been fueled by the industry’s chronic challenges with controlling infections and staffing shortages.

Mark Parkinson of the American Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes and assisted living facilities, said he hopes federal officials will use the data they collect to identify where to prioritize badly needed resources like testing and masks.

“The country was so focused on making sure that hospitals were fully equipped and ready for a surge of admissions, we were really left behind,” he said.

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

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All donations are tax-deductible.