Coronavirus: Nearly half of state deaths are among senior care home patients and staff

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By Thomas Peele and Annie Sciacca | Bay Area News Group | May 8, 2020

15% percent of nursing homes in the state did not report numbers to the California Department of Public Health

Nearly half of all the people who have died of the coronavirus in California were residents and staff of nursing homes and assisted living facilities, a huge increase over previous estimates, state data released Friday show.

The new numbers are the best assessment to date of the dangers in congregate living facilities, which have become California’s hotbeds of disease transmission as social distancing protocols have tamped down the spread of coronavirus in the general population.

In all, 1,276 patients and staff in senior residential care facilities have died of COVID-19-related causes, according to May 7 numbers provided by the state departments of public health and social services. The number — which currently amounts to 49 percent of deaths statewide — continues to grow and likely is an undercount, experts have said, because it relies on self-reported data and in some cases may not include deaths that occurred after people left those facilities for hospitals.

The numbers are even more alarming when compared to overall infection rates. As of May 7, 11,344 residents and staff of nursing homes and assisted living facilities had tested positive for the virus, about 18 percent of the state’s total cases. That means nursing home residents and staff are dying at a far higher rate than others who contract the virus.

“So many people losing their lives are seniors from the greatest generation who built the middle class,” Gov. Gavin Newsom said during a news conference on Friday afternoon.

As stunning as those numbers may seem, some who have watched nursing homes closely say they expected the trend.

“We’ve predicted that nearly 50 percent of the deaths would be from long-term care facilities that were simply unprepared regarding staff, infection control and prevention, the lack of (protective equipment) and banning all visitors — leaving residents at the mercy of the facility,” said Pat McGinnis, executive director at California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform.

The state oversees two kinds of senior care facilities — nursing homes, which provide health care, and assisted living and board and care facilities, which do not.

On Friday, the state public health department for the first time revealed cumulative deaths in individual nursing homes. Gateway Rehabilitation and Care Center in Hayward has 17 deaths — the most COVID-19 related deaths of any nursing home in the Bay Area. Its director, Andre Aldridge, was not available to comment Friday. A call to Gateway’s owners, Prima and Antony Thekkek of Alamo, who an advocate has said are among the “bad actors” in California’s nursing home industry, was not returned.

“It is very sad. I know the pain these families are feeling.” said Jaime Patiño, a Union City councilman whose grandmother lived at Gateway and died from the virus.

The state department of social services — which oversees assisted living facilities — also provided cumulative death totals for those facilities for the first time. That data shows that 13 residents of Gordon Manor in Redwood City have died from COVID-19 — the highest number of COVID-related deaths reported by an assisted living facility in the state. Its director, Alisa Mallari Tu, did not return a phone call Friday. Former Stanford president Donald Kennedy died in that facility.

Neither agency’s report includes exact numbers of infections or deaths if the facility had 10 or fewer.

“It’s encouraging that the state is finally making some progress on the awful COVID transparency issues, but several huge problems still loom,” said Mike Dark, a staff attorney at CANHR, of the release of the data, noting that the state is still offering mostly “snapshot” information reflecting reporting from the last 24 hours — not cumulative numbers of each facility’s COVID-19 cases.

“A facility that is overwhelmed by COVID cases will fall out of the public reporting if there are no new cases reported in the last day — drastically understating the true extent of the crisis,” he said.

The public health department in April started requiring nursing facilities to report daily updates about staffing levels and the number of COVID-19 patients via an online survey. According to the latest report, 15 percent of California’s 1,224 nursing homes did not report data about COVID-19 cases or deaths.

Universal, regular testing will be key to getting a full picture of the crisis, Dark said.

“Without widespread mandatory testing and available testing kits, there are likely thousands of residents who are acutely sick with the virus, and many who have died, who never get reported,” he said. “It is possible that given these delays in testing and reporting we will never know the toll the virus has already taken.”

Dr. Mark Ghaly, secretary of the state’s Health and Human Services Agency, did not answer directly when asked at a Friday news conference about whether the state will mandate testing across all nursing homes, instead noting that state health officials “continue to work with our stakeholders around what is the right way to get people working and residents in skilled nursing facilities tested.”

An earlier version of this story cited state data showing that Studio City Rehabilitation Center in Los Angeles had 31 COVID-19 deaths, but a spokesperson for the facility has confirmed that number is inaccurate, and a new state list updated Friday afternoon showed the facility had fewer than 11 deaths. 

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