Nursing homes and other long-term care facilities were among the hardest hit by COVID-19 in the spring.
Now, as Illinois confronts a second coronavirus surge, so too are the communities that are home to some of the state’s most vulnerable.
As of Friday, the state has seen nearly 39,686 COVID-19 cases in long-term care facilities, and more than 5,493 virus-related deaths, according to the Illinois Department of Public Health.
“As we see the virus surge through communities in Illinois and other states across the U.S. now, unfortunately, we’re going to see pretty much what we saw in spring and summer, which is the community spread surges will be followed by nursing home cases and deaths,” said Tamara Konetzka, a professor of health sciences research at the University of Chicago. She has conducted extensive research around nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. Tamara testified before a U.S. Senate panel in May about COVID-19 and nursing homes.
“Community spread is the biggest predictor of nursing home cases and deaths,” Konetzka said.
As COVID-19 continues to surge in Illinois, nursing homes and other long-term care facilities are bracing for what’s likely to come.
“With the community infection, prevalence, going sky high, we are bracing ourselves for another outbreak to follow,” said Dr. Rajeev Kumar, medical director at Burgess Square Healthcare and Rehab Centre in Westmont and Plymouth Place in La Grange. “Having learned the lessons from March and April, we are detecting infections sooner. If a resident or a staff member tests positive, we are isolating them. We have COVID designated units, COVID areas, and we move them there to prevent an outbreak from happening.”
Nursing homes have been preparing for a while, said Pat Comstock, COVID-19 response director at Health Care Council of Illinois, a trade group representing over 300 nursing home facilities in Illinois.
It’s essential that community members help prevent the spread by wearing masks, washing their hands, practicing social distancing and avoiding large crowds, Comstock said.
“That will help us stop the virus at our door,” Comstock said.
For some nursing homes, personal protective equipment and adequate staffing are still challenges, Konetzka said.
“The supply chains just aren’t there yet,” Konetzka said. “It’s really hard to find people right now in the middle of a pandemic who want to work in long-term care facilities.”
In terms of PPE, Kumar said while access to equipment isn’t as bad as in the spring, there are still challenges.
“It’s not perfect.,” Kumar said. “What the recommendations are, ‘Use these masks, discard them. Use these gowns, discard them.’ If you did that every single time, I think we would be running into shortages pretty quickly.”
Regina Rodriguez, a certified nursing assistant at Willow Crest Nursing Pavilion and an SEIU Healthcare Illinois union steward said PPE has also been a challenge there.
“We still do not have the proper PPE that is required in order for us to go into war per se. You know, we’re not properly dressed for it,” Rodriguez said. “We don’t have the proper PPE in order for us to be protected property for us to not get sick because the employers are not providing us with what we need to not get sick.”
A spokesperson for Willow Crest Nursing Pavilion denied Rodriguez’s statement about PPE.
“Resident and employee safety is at the forefront of everything we do at Willow Crest. Informed by local, state and federal guidance, we’ve taken the utmost precaution to fight off this virus. And this includes stockpiling PPE,” a spokesperson said in a statement. “In anticipation of the third wave, we currently have approximately 600 N95 masks, 500 washable gowns, 300 boxes of gloves, 350 test strips, 300 containers of wipes, among other vital equipment.”
Comstock said that prices for PPE have skyrocketed since the pandemic, and that some facilities are working together to make group purchases.
“Nursing homes always need more resources,” Comstock said. “The Medicaid rates have been challenging for us. We have exhausted all of our available resources, even the resources that came from the federal government to keep up.”
Aside from the devastating health impact the coronavirus has had on long-term care facilities, social isolation has also affected the residents, Kumar said.
“The social isolation has been deadly, depression rates have increased,” Kumar said. He emphasized the importance of distinguishing between social distancing and physical distancing, mentioning ways nursing homes have found to keep residents connected with family members.
“Even having a loved one come by the window and waving at them, or even touching them through the glass pane while practicing good hygiene, that has helped residents come out of social isolation,” he said.
Andrea Donovan, a senior living advisor, said the isolation has been difficult for both residents and their families. However, the long-term facilities have tried to help residents stay connected by arranging Zoom calls or FaceTime.
“The nursing homes have made a lot of effort in order to soften the blow of a pandemic like this,” Donovan said.