It is now no secret–our nursing home situation is now and has been for a long time, a nationwide tragedy. It is now time to clean up the mess.
The new COVID-19 surge is hitting Illinois’ most vulnerable residents harder than ever, with a record 480 deaths recorded in the past week among people living in long-term care facilities.A Tribune analysis found the surge in deaths was particularly steep outside the greater Chicago area, underscoring the challenges of keeping the virus out of nursing homes and assisted living facilities when infections are spreading in the surrounding communities.Gov. J.B. Pritzker offered a deep sigh Friday when asked what more could be done to tamp down the surge in long-term care deaths.“This is frankly the same challenge that exists in all the other populations, and even more so, when we’re at the highest levels of the pandemic,” he told reporters.The latest weekly death tally was nearly double that recorded in the prior week, part of a sizable increase in deaths from earlier in the fall. The latest toll was slightly more than the number seen in the previous worst week for such deaths, during the spring surge, in early May.
Weekly long-term care deaths at highest-ever level
Each week, the state releases updated figures of deaths of residents at long-term care facilities. The latest statewide tally was the highest weekly figure recorded in the pandemic.The Illinois Department of Public Health culls the figures each Friday from a database that local health departments add to throughout the week, and at times there can be delays in reporting by local officials, particularly around weekends and holidays. The department did not immediately respond to questions Friday about whether lags connected to the Thanksgiving holiday affected the new number.Regardless, it is clear that the second COVID-19 surge has been ripping through long-term care facilities again this fall. New case counts have risen dramatically for these facilities, with roughly 4,500 new infections noted among residents in the past week — another record. That’s about 500 more new cases uncovered than in the worst week of the spring surge.Researchers have pointed out how difficult it can be to stop the virus from entering facilities when it’s raging in nearby communities, especially with a disease that can leave people infectious without showing symptoms. The virus can then wreak havoc not only on elderly and frail residents but also at times on the workers who care for them.Early in the pandemic, state officials split Illinois into four regions for tracking purposes. The northeast region, which includes Chicago and its suburbs, initially had the highest rate of deaths relative to its population size; in the spring, the region saw nearly five weekly deaths of long-term care residents per 100,000 people in the general population.That rate dropped in the summer and then crept back up to nearly two long-term care deaths per 100,000 residents. But the more massive increases have been elsewhere, the Tribune found in its analysis of state data. In the past week, the rate for the southern region topped six deaths per 100,000 residents; for the central region, it was more than seven; and for the north-central part of the state, more than eight.While researchers and advocates blame much of the problem on the prevalence of the virus near these facilities, there are also questions about government oversight.Those issues surfaced most recently with a state Senate committee hearing and a state investigation into an outbreak at the state-run veterans home in LaSalle last month, where as of Friday the virus had infected 209 veterans and staffers, and killed 30.But the question of state oversight goes beyond state-run facilities; some nursing homes run by for-profit firms have also seen cases in the triple digits. At a dozen of these homes, the death toll exceeds the number seen at LaSalle, with one facility recording more than 50 COVID-19 deaths. AARP Illinois, which has called for broader public hearings on what went wrong in those facilities, said Friday that not enough is being done to protect residents and staff. “The loss of life is appalling and unacceptable. After nine months of dealing with COVID-19, nursing homes and other long-term care facilities should have been better prepared for this second wave,” Bob Gallo, AARP Illinois’ state director, said in a statement. “Seniors remain in grave danger as the virus reenters these facilities at an alarming pace.” As the virus raced through facilities this spring, IDPH cut back inspections that are required by state law. Four months ago, IDPH forced out two top administrators and announced it had hired a consulting firm to conduct a “top to bottom review” of its oversight practices. The agency has yet to release records related to that review. The Tribune filed a public records request for them Sept. 4. IDPH has yet to respond, and the Tribune has appealed to the attorney general’s office for assistance. Asked what more the state could do now to limit the virus’s spread in long-term care facilities, Pritzker on Friday told reporters that the state had stopped allowing outdoor visits, that it is mandating more testing and “certainly infection control is better overall now than it was at the very beginning because there’s a greater understanding of what needs to be done.” Representatives of long-term care facilities have said they need more government aid, while advocates and a union representing the largely low-wage workforce has portrayed the industry as focused more on profits than care. The latter complaints became a flashpoint in a strike at 11 facilities that lasted 12 days until the workers reached a tentative deal Friday with the chain’s owner, Infinity Healthcare. Among the chain’s facilities is Niles Nursing & Rehabilitation Center, which leads the state in the number of COVID-19 deaths, with 54 during an earlier outbreak. The home is now enduring another outbreak with 12 cases, according to state firstname.lastname@example.org