As COVID cases surge in nursing homes, feds urge extra holiday precaution

Officials have warned staff and residents to avoid contact with family members.

As coronavirus rates surge across the nation, the Trump administration issued new recommendations this week urging residents and staff of nursing homes to avoid contact with relatives during the upcoming holiday season – a dark reminder of the threat now bearing down on seniors in congregate settings.

The guidance comes as nursing homes grapple with the renewed challenge of infected staff members. One of the nation’s largest providers, ProMedica Senior Care, which operates 222 nursing homes around the country, has seen the virus’s dramatic onset. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the company’s 30,000 senior care staffers have recorded 2,000 positive tests. But 600 of those have come in the past two weeks.

“We’re all afraid as employees to be 'patient zero,'” said Katy Tenner, a dietician at a ProMedica nursing home in Sacramento, California. “Knowing what we know about what it can do if it gets into a nursing home. None of us wants to be that person.”

Nursing facilities are home to some of the populations most vulnerable to COVID-19 -- the elderly and sick. Since the start of the pandemic through Nov. 18, nearly 94,000 people have died in those facilities, according to an ABC News analysis of state data – representing about 37% of all deaths nationwide. Approximately 1.4 million people live in nursing care in the U.S.

MORE: Nursing homes, after seeing improvements, now face a fresh COVID-19 threat
The COVID Tracking Project, run by The Atlantic, reported this week that nursing homes infections rose 17% during the week ending Nov. 17, the sharpest national increase they had seen since May.

And state-by-state data reviewed by ABC News shows the virus is consistently finding its way into nursing facilities. In at least 16 states, nursing homes currently account for more half of all COVID deaths. Senior care settings now accounting for 70% of fatalities in New Hampshire and Rhode Island

There is another dimension to the pandemic that may not be as visible -- the pain of months of isolation that residents have experienced with visitors forbidden in many cases, making the new federal recommendations all the more daunting.

“We understand the emotional impact that separation from loved ones has caused,” wrote Seema Verma, the federal administrator who regulates nursing homes. “With the potential for a safe and effective vaccine on the immediate horizon, extra precautions now are essential to protect nursing home residents until a vaccine becomes available.”

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