As of Friday, March 6th, coronavirus (COVID-19) infections were confirmed in 247 Americans across 21 states. Fourteen of those patients have died, 9 of whom lived in the same Washington nursing home. Family members of the patients at Life Care Center of Kirkland have been disappointed by the facility’s response to the outbreak. They are right to be concerned: Coronavirus is fatal in more cases involving the elderly and/or those with other medical conditions than in younger, healthier people. Most nursing home residents meet both risk factors. When the disease gets a foothold among these populations, it can be devastating.
If you are worried about a loved one in a nursing home or other residential treatment, it’s important to remember the number of coronavirus cases in America is still low compared to many other countries. However, many nursing homes are not taking the steps they should to keep residents safe.
Infection Control Is a Longstanding Problem in Nursing Homes
An examination of federal records filed since the beginning of 2017 found that by far, infection-control violations are the most common problem reported by nursing home inspectors. Kaiser Health News found that 9,372 nursing homes, 61% of all those mentioned in the reports, had been cited at least once for inadequate sanitation practices. In many cases, the problem was as simple as nurses failing to wash their hands.
In fact, in 2019, Life Care of Kirkland was fined $67,000 after violations led to 2 flu outbreaks. Though a second inspection later in the year showed the problems had been corrected, this most recent outbreak may signal the changes did not stick. Given that many facilities were cited more than once for sanitation violations, it’s possible staff either revert to unsafe practices or fail to properly train newcomers.
New Standards for Nursing Homes Will Improve Patient Safety
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) announced a slate of measures they would take to enhance nursing home residents’ wellness. For one, the agency is assigning inspectors to review nursing homes that participate in Medicare for infection-control violations. This is in addition to regularly required inspections in nursing homes.
They have also released guidance for healthcare providers from both their team and the CDC as well as a set of protocols for any situations in which an infection is suspected or confirmed. In accordance with these instructions, nursing homes will be screening staff and visitors and taking proactive steps to decrease the risk of transmission from anyone showing symptoms of an infection.
Coronavirus Symptoms and Transmission Factors
Even for those of us who haven’t traveled abroad lately, or had contact with anyone who did, it’s a good idea to watch for symptoms. This is especially true if you have contact with those who are more vulnerable to the disease.
The CDC has identified three main symptoms those who are infected may experience:
- Shortness of breath
The virus has an incubation period of up to 2 weeks, meaning symptoms may not appear until up to 14 days after exposure. Some carriers may remain asymptomatic but can still infect others. Unfortunately, the only way to identify these vectors is through testing—which is not widely available at this time.
Reduce Your Risk of Infection
Unlike some colds, the coronavirus appears to spread through direct contact. When an infected individual coughs or sneezes, they may spread the virus via “respiratory droplets.” If one of these droplets enters the nose, mouth, or eye, either by directly hitting a person or by depositing the virus on a nearby surface, it may cause an infection. The virus may also travel through contaminated food or water.
Thankfully, scientists have not yet found any cases of airborne transmission, though they have not ruled out the possibility. To prevent direct infection, the CDC recommends paying extra attention to hygienic practices such as the ones listed in this recent brochure.
Balancing Wellbeing with Concern
We understand how difficult it can be to not have access to a loved one who might be in danger, but the fewer chances the coronavirus has to enter any of these facilities, the safer everyone inside will be. As tests become more accessible and new cases are identified across the U.S., the numbers show many people have unknowingly been in contact with someone who was carrying the virus. That could happen to any of us. If you are in or near a facility, follow staff’s directions—they may have information that has not yet become public. However, doing your part to fight the coronavirus may mean staying home during visiting hours until the pandemic wanes.
Finally, while thinking about your loved one, do not forget to take care of yourself. The CDC has released guidelines we can all follow to give ourselves the best chance of staying healthy. For each person who starts adhering to these practices, the community will become safer for everyone, including the most vulnerable.