When COVID-19 made its way inside her mother’s nursing home, Pam Gould and her relatives resorted to talking to the 94-year-old on window visits.
Her mother’s hearing aids were lost, so she can’t hear her daughter outside Sequim Health and Rehabilitation Center. But family members made signs: “WE LOVE YOU! EVERYTHING IS FINE! NO COVID” written in black marker. Over the past several weeks, the facility had dozens of COVID19 cases, reported through robocalls to families.
“This is just a small piece of the damage COVID has wrought, and she miraculously survived,” Gould said. “But she is not the same.”
Earlier this year, many facilities reopened their doors for visits as cases and deaths plummeted amid widespread vaccinations. But the highly transmissible delta variant and varying rate of staff vaccinations have meant that once again, high numbers of Washington nursing homes, assisted-living facilities and adult family homes are experiencing outbreaks and must restrict visits.
Throughout September, at least 300 facilities had at least one active case of coronavirus among residents or staff members in Washington, according to data from the Department of Social and Health Services. This is a nearly fourfold increase from July, when the number fell to the lowest of any time during the pandemic.
Cases and deaths in the state’s 1,495 long-term care facilities have plummeted, in large part because of vaccinations. This has been welcome news for the more than 170,000 residents and employees in these buildings who have been disproportionately affected by the virus. Among all Washington cases, those connected to long-term care facilities account for 4%, but deaths connected to long-term care facilities make up 37% of the state’s total death toll of just over 7,900 people, according to the state Department of Health.
In Washington nursing homes, which absorbed the cruelest blows of the deadly virus, cases and deaths both decreased by 89% from December 2020 — the peak of the pandemic — to June 2021, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation. But there’s been an uptick since the onset of the delta variant.
This mirrors national data. The KFF analysis found that the rate in nursing homes increased at a faster rate than the community rate. Between July and August, deaths among staff and residents quadrupled, while deaths nationally doubled.
“While the vast majority of COVID-19 deaths happened outside of nursing homes in July and August, the high rate of increase within nursing homes indicates that residents and staff in these settings are at risk of death during the delta surge, and not immune from the most recent wave,” KFF researchers wrote in their analysis, released last week.
Most outbreaks have involved a few residents or staff members, and in most instances, the infections have been minor, said Robin Dale, CEO of the Washington State Health Care Association, which represents nursing homes.
But some facilities have reported widespread outbreaks of breakthrough infections and deaths. At the Washington Veterans Home in Port Orchard, 41 residents and 13 staff members tested positive between July 30 and Aug. 30, according to the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs. Another two staff members tested positive between Sept. 1 and Oct. 5, spokeswoman Heidi Audette said. As of Sept. 26, 98% of residents and 75% of staff were vaccinated, according to CMS data.
In Colville, 50 residents, including seven who died, and 27 staff members of Pinewood Terrace tested positive for coronavirus in an outbreak that began Aug. 25, according to Prestige Care, which owns the skilled nursing facility. The facility doesn’t have any active cases among patients, the company said in a statement.
The vaccination rate of Pinewood Terrace residents is 73%, and just 37% of staff members have received a shot.
“We are working on a one-on-one basis to encourage vaccination among all staff and patients, and we expect our vaccination rate among staff to increase as we approach the deadlines for long-term care workers to demonstrate proof of full vaccination,” Prestige Care said in a statement.
Meanwhile, the deadline for long-term care facility staff to be vaccinated against the virus is Oct. 18, under Gov. Jay Inslee’s sweeping mandate that also applies to state employees. As of Sept. 26, 77% of the state’s nursing home staff are vaccinated, according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, which doesn’t track other long-term care facilities. Industry officials say the numbers are low but still encouraging, as the rate has increased by 10 percentage points since Inslee announced the mandate.
Among residents, 87% are vaccinated, according to the data.