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Maryland nursing home deaths approach 1,000, accounting for more than half of state’s coronavirus toll

Nearly 1,000 residents of Maryland nursing homes, assisted living centers and retirement communities have died of the coronavirus, a more than 25% increase over the past week, according to new data posted Wednesday by state health officials.

The facilities account for 59% of the state’s coronavirus deaths — close to double estimates that a quarter to a third of coronavirus deaths nationwide are linked to nursing homes and other long-term care centers. The state has now reported infections in 212 elder care facilities, up from 193 a week ago.

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The numbers are raising alarm among long-term care residents and their families, and prompting calls for the state to speed up widespread testing that Republican Gov. Larry Hogan ordered two weeks ago. Relatively few facilities appear to have received a large number of tests.

“We want to see this happen immediately,” said Hank Greenberg, state director of AARP Maryland. “Clearly there has been some additional testing, it appears, out on the Eastern Shore where the poultry industry outbreak has been, and so we want to see similarly some direct action in nursing homes.”

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Maryland health officials said they have been collecting about 3,000 test swabs a day and expect to have all nursing homes tested within two to three weeks.

Nursing home industry leaders expressed concern that at the pace they have seen it occurring, it could take longer, though.

“They’ve got the tests; they just don’t have enough people to go into all 227 nursing homes at the same time,” said Kevin Heffner, CEO of the LifeSpan Network, an association of senior care providers in Maryland and the District of Columbia.

Still, Heffner said member facilities that have received the tests have reported “a pretty smooth seamless process.” The Maryland National Guard is distributing them with the help of local health departments, he said.

The nursing home industry has said broader testing is crucial as administrators work to prevent the virus from being spread by staff members, many of whom may not be showing symptoms associated with coronavirus infection, including fever and cough. Visitor access to nursing homes has been restricted since an executive order Hogan issued in early March.

Maryland is updating public data on nursing home cases weekly, while other coronavirus data is reported daily. Because of that, the number of deaths tied to nursing homes had appeared to drop as low as 49%, as of Tuesday, but the data posted Wednesday shows the facilities continue to account for more than half of Maryland’s coronavirus death toll.

The Kaiser Family Foundation had estimated that, as of April 23, long-term care facilities accounted for 27% of deaths in states that have shared data publicly on those outbreaks. The New York Times reported that data it has collected shows the proportion to be about a third nationally.

Maryland’s data shows the virus continues to hit elderly people with preexisting health conditions the hardest. It has killed 983 nursing home residents and 12 nursing home staff members. As of Wednesday, there were about 34,800 confirmed coronavirus cases and have been nearly 1,700 deaths statewide.

The data shows outbreaks continue to spread within long-term care facilities. With more than 5,300 residents and 2,200 staff members infected as of Wednesday, the facilities account for more than one in five of the state’s cases of COVID-19, the illness caused by the virus.

However, some facilities offered outbreak numbers lower than those reported on a Maryland Department of Health website, and state officials did not immediately respond to questions about the discrepancies.

For example, at Bel Air Health and Rehabilitation Center in Harford County, state data shows an outbreak affecting 16 staff and 45 residents as of May 6 has more than doubled in size, with 27 staff infections and 80 residents reported ill as of Wednesday. Ten residents have died, with four of those deaths reported in the past week, the state reported.

Annaliese Impink, a spokeswoman for SavaSeniorCare, the facility’s owner, said the center “currently has a total of 78 positive cases and 8 deaths.” Impink said the facility is working “very closely” with state and local health officials to put measures in place to limit transmission of the coronavirus, including assessing staff for illness before every shift and completing “universal” testing.

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A state “strike team,” launched last month to help nursing homes manage coronavirus outbreaks, visited the facility over the weekend, she added.

The strike teams have visited 118 congregate living facilities, including 12 assisted living facilities, 43 nursing homes, and 63 group homes in Maryland, state health officials said.

At Autumn Lake at Bridgepark in Northwest Baltimore, an outbreak ballooned from seven infected residents a week ago to 70 cases Wednesday with three resident deaths. An attorney for Autumn Lake declined to be interviewed by The Baltimore Sun.

The new data also shows the continued spread of the virus into the state’s elderly congregate living centers, including nursing homes and some assisted living facilities and retirement communities. Among the 212 outbreaks reported in such facilities, most are being reported in the 226 licensed nursing homes in the state, though some are also occurring in assisted living facilities and independent living retirement communities.

Arbor Ridge, an assisted living, rehabilitation, and skilled nursing center near Beltsville that is part of the Riderwood Village retirement community, reported its first COVID-19 cases and deaths in Wednesday’s data, revealing a significant outbreak.

Twenty Arbor Ridge residents have died from the coronavirus, and there are 38 cases “active” cases confirmed at the community, said Dan Dunne, a spokesman for Erickson Living, the facility’s Catonsville-based parent company.

State data showed the outbreak to be larger, though, with 102 infections among residents and staff and 26 resident deaths.

Asked about the discrepancy between the numbers he provided and those provided by the state, Dunne referred questions to the Maryland Department of Health.

The Riderwood community includes independent living, assisted living, inpatient rehabilitation, memory care, and nursing care. Its Arbor Ridge nursing facility has a capacity for 117 residents, according to Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services data.

The Maryland Department of Health has not sent any of its strike teams to Riderwood or any of Erickson Living’s facilities, because officials “determined their resources were better deployed elsewhere,” Dunne said. “However, we are continuing to coordinate closely with them in case things change.”

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“Riderwood continues to take aggressive precautionary measures to help protect the safety and well-being of those on campus, which is our highest priority,” he added in a statement.

A potential workforce shortage meanwhile looms for nursing homes as the expanded testing occurs. Any workers who test positive will be ordered to quarantine, and industry officials say nursing homes are struggling to come up with replacement staff who may be needed in large numbers.

When Hogan ordered the broader nursing home coronavirus testing April 29, he also said the state was launching what he called “bridge teams” of nurses and nursing aides to help fill the gaps. State health officials said the state has trained 213 people out of 288 they are planning to send across the state, with plans for 24 teams of 12 people.

Heffner said there are concerns there won’t be enough reinforcements to fill the expected need, however.

“There was a nursing shortage nationwide before this even started,” he said, referring to the coronavirus pandemic. “Trying to get new people to come into a COVID environment, at the compensation levels where they are, it’s going to be tough.”

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