COVID-19 cases still increasing in nursing homes as officials loosen visitor restrictions

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have been hot spots for the novel coronavirus.

Not only do these facilities bring people into close quarters where the virus can spread more easily, but Catherine Sevier, the president of the North Carolina chapter for AARP, said residents in these facilities are some of the most vulnerable to the infection.

"The biggest risk factor for dying from COVID is being older, having a comorbid condition, having another condition that puts you at risk and then being in congregate living," Sevier said. "So when you put those three things together, that is 'nursing home' in bright lights."

Back in April, North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper instituted strict restrictions for nursing homes, banning visitors and closing common spaces to limit the spread of the virus. However, cases still began to spread throughout the facilities.

In early May, weekly COVID-19 cases and deaths in nursing homes increased by 20%. By the end of that month, more than 3,000 residents were infected and more than 400 were dead.

Now, nursing home residents account for 40% of the state's COVID-19 deaths. In September, cases and deaths increased by nearly 7% and 31 facilities reported new outbreaks.

According to data submitted to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, in the last two months, 104 nursing homes statewide reported three or more confirmed COVID-19 cases in a week. Ninety-three nursing homes reported their first case in the last two months.

But Sevier said isolating residents can have detrimental psychological impacts, and he believes plans to reopen to some degree are necessary for patient and family peace of mind.

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"We've now realized that it is very detrimental to our family and our loved ones to be socially isolated far more than we really realized," Sevier said. "We still have to protect people in congregate living situations, but we also have to find ways to open up and help people reengage."

State health officials require all nursing home staff to be tested for COVID-19 biweekly--whether or not they have symptoms. Additionally, state officers and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services have resumed regular inspections of facilities to make sure patients are safe and infection control measures are being followed.

And this week, Gov. Roy Cooper said some nursing homes would be allowed to resume in-person visits, but only those that have had no positive COVID-19 cases in the past two weeks in counties that have fewer than 10% of tests returning positive.

Currently, only a handful of counties do not qualify, but the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services is currently reporting more than 200 ongoing nursing home outbreaks.

Sevier said allowing visitors will be good both for residents' mental health as well as families' peace of mind.

"A lot of our families have been very anxious for the wellbeing of their family member, and it has nothing to do on if (sic) they trust the caregivers in the nursing home," Sevier said. "It's that they want to be at the bedside with that person, they want to see them, they want to make sure that person doesn't feel lost to them during this time."

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But as the holiday season approaches, Sevier said she is worried about the impact visitors might have during a typically busy time.

"There are going to be new questions about how do we do those celebrations, can we let people come in for holidays, how do we deal with all those visitations," Sevier said.

She added that it's up both facilities and visitors to take responsibility for using preventative measures such as wearing a face covering and keeping socially distant, even among family members.
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