Nursing home outbreak spotlights coronavirus risk in elder care facilities

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An outbreak of coronavirus disease in a nursing home near Seattle is prompting urgent calls for precautionary tactics at America’s elder care facilities, where residents are at heightened risk of serious complications from the illness because of the dual threat of age and close living conditions.

The emergence of the novel contagious illness at the Life Care Center of Kirkland, Washington, has left one resident dead and four others hospitalized, with three in critical condition, local health officials said late Sunday. A health care worker in her 40s also remained in satisfactory condition. The resident who died was a man in his 70s with underlying health conditions, officials said.

Officials previously said that of the nursing home’s 108 residents and 180 staff members, more than 50 have shown signs of possible COVID-19 infections, the name given the illness caused by a novel coronavirus that emerged from Wuhan, China, late last year. Visits from families, volunteers and vendors have been halted and new admissions placed on hold, according to a statement from Ellie Basham, the center’s executive director.

“Current residents and associates are being monitored closely, and any with symptoms or who were potentially exposed are quarantined,” she wrote.

The cluster of illness is the first of its type in the U.S., where 2.2 million people live in long-term care settings and may be at heightened risk because of age and underlying health conditions.

In Florida, approximately 71,000 older people occupy nursing home beds, according to the state.

“We are very concerned about an outbreak in a setting where there are many older people,” said Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for the Seattle and King County public health agency.

The American Health Care Association, which represents 13,500 nonprofit and for-profit facilities for seniors and disabled people, issued updated guidelines Saturday, in response to the Washington outbreak. The new virus is thought to spread primarily via droplets in the air, and the guidelines largely echo strategies recommended to stem the spread of other respiratory viruses, such as influenza. That includes frequent hand sanitation among staff and visitors, grouping people who become ill in the same room or wing, and asking family members who are sick to avoid in-person visits.

But members had been anticipating cases of the new virus, said Dr. David Gifford, the association’s chief medical officer and senior vice president of quality and regulatory affairs.

“Clearly, it signaled that it’s here and that what people knew was likely to come is closer to them than before,” he said.

COVID-19 has been identified in more than 85,000 people worldwide and led to nearly 3,000 deaths.

Studies of hospitalized patients in China suggest the median age of infection is in the 50s and that about 80 percent of COVID-19 cases are mild. However, a new summary in the journal JAMA reported that the virus has a case fatality rate of 1 percent to 2 percent overall — and as high as 8 percent to 15 percent in older patients in China.

That is alarming news for U.S. residents in long-term care settings, where illnesses caused by more common pathogens like norovirus and seasonal influenza often spread rapidly among residents, causing severe complications. Immune response wanes as people age, leaving them more vulnerable to infections of all types.

JoNel Aleccia is a Senior Correspondent focused on aging and end-of-life issues on the Kaiser Health News enterprise team. The Florida Phoenix is publishing this story under an agreement with Kaiser.

Michael Moline in Tallahassee contributed to this story.