HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) - COVID-19 has killed hundreds more Pennsylvania nursing home residents than was previously known, state health officials reported Wednesday, underscoring the threat at long-term care facilities that have struggled for weeks to contain the coronavirus.
The Department of Health reported 479 new COVID-19 deaths - 339 at nursing and personal care homes - raising Pennsylvania’s death toll to more than 2,100. Nursing homes now account for 65% of the total.
Nursing homes cite shortages of personal protective equipment and say they haven’t been able to do enough diagnostic testing to quickly identify and isolate patients and staff who have the virus. They say testing is critical because people can spread the virus without knowing they have it.
“If we know who has it, then we can isolate effectively, we can mitigate spread much more effectively. And until there’s testing … that makes it incredibly difficult,” said Adam Marles, president and CEO of LeadingAge PA, which represents hundreds of nonprofit nursing homes statewide.
“The more testing we can do, the better,” he said. “The need is great, and the testing supplies are a real difficulty right now.”
State health officials have consistently said they don’t have the capacity to test all nursing home residents, and that only those with COVID-19 symptoms should be tested.
A new federal lawsuit, meanwhile, seeks to force the state health department to publicly report all positive virus cases inside nursing homes, by facility. It also demands that state health officials dramatically expand testing of nursing home residents and boost inspections at nursing homes.
Inspections “have come nearly to a halt” during the pandemic, “putting all (long-term care facility) residents at risk of infectious disease transmission,” the suit asserted.
A health department spokesman declined comment on the pending litigation.
One of the worst nursing home outbreaks is at Brighton Rehabilitation and Wellness Center in Beaver County, near the Ohio border, where at least 58 people have died. The health department said it has installed a temporary manager there to monitor Brighton’s efforts to contain the virus and protect residents.
In a statement, Brighton asserted that some residents who tested positive for the virus died from other causes, and said its staff “work tirelessly to slow the rate of transmission, and to care for our wonderful residents.”
Other nursing homes with significant outbreaks include Gracedale, a county-run facility in Northampton County, where 21 patients have died. The National Guard was called in this week to provide short-term staffing there because so many employees are calling out, county officials said.
In Chester County, outside Philadelphia, conflicting reports about the number of COVID-related deaths at the Southeast Veterans’ Center have prompted calls for an investigation into the facility, one of six veterans nursing homes run by the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. The agency reported 16 deaths across all six homes, but the Chester County coroner said 27 deaths at Southeast alone were reported to her office.
“We have no idea what is going on there or how this outbreak is being handled,” the coroner, Dr. Christina VandePol, said in a written statement.
Joan Nissley, the veterans agency’s spokeswoman, said, “We continue to be vigilant in our infection prevention and control plans and remain dedicated in doing everything we can to safeguard the health of our residents.” She said 35 residents and 36 staff have tested positive for the virus systemwide.
Pennsylvania’s nursing homes aren’t required to publicly report COVID-19 infections and deaths. With family visits off-limits during the pandemic, some relatives say facilities have left them in the dark about outbreaks. State health officials refuse to release information about individual nursing homes but have said they’re considering it.
The state’s chief fiscal watchdog, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, urged transparency.
“I do believe that every Pennsylvanian should know the number of cases and the number of deaths in every facility,” he said Wednesday.
In other coronavirus-related developments:
Pennsylvania’s nearly 500 newly reported deaths occurred over the past two weeks. State health officials have worked to reconcile their records with data provided by hospitals, health care systems, county and municipal health departments and long-term care facilities. That resulted in the upward adjustment Wednesday.
The state’s death toll stands at 2,195. Positive tests for the virus confirmed 2,158 of those. The other 37 were listed as probable COVID-19 deaths, meaning they were thought to have contracted the virus based on their symptoms but died before they could be tested.
Some county coroners have accused the health department of publishing inaccurate death statistics. Last week, the health department slashed the official toll by removing 270 deaths it had counted as probable.
“Some of the reconciliation and behind-the-scenes data analysis that takes days and weeks … can lead to fluctuations in the data,” health department spokesman Nate Wardle said Wednesday.
More than 1,100 additional people tested positive for the virus, the health department reported, raising the statewide total to more than 44,000.
The number of infections is thought to be far higher because many people haven’t been tested, and studies suggest people can be infected with the virus without feeling sick.
For most people, it causes mild or moderate symptoms that clear up in a couple of weeks. Older adults and people with existing health problems are at higher risk of more severe illness, including pneumonia, or death.
Hard-hit Montgomery County tested all of its jail inmates for the virus last week and got some stunning results.
Officials reported that 171 inmates who displayed no symptoms of COVID-19 tested positive for the coronavirus - far more than previously thought. That represents nearly 20% of the county’s 942 inmates.
Previously, just a few inmates had shown symptoms and tested positive, officials said.
County Commissioner Val Arkoosh said nursing homes in Montgomery County that are testing all staff and residents are seeing similar results, showing widespread testing is needed when businesses start to reopen, even with strict social distancing.
“If asymptomatic people are coming to work every day, it’s going to be hard to get a handle on this,” Arkoosh said.
FIELD HOSPITAL TO CLOSE
Officials plan to shut down Philadelphia’s emergency field hospital, located at The Liacouras Center at Temple University.
The field hospital had just five coronavirus patients as of Wednesday afternoon.
“Early next week, if things look good, we will stop admissions,” Philadelphia Health Commissioner Thomas Farley said Wednesday.
Rubinkam reported from northeastern Pennsylvania. Associated Press reporter Claudia Lauer in Philadelphia contributed to this story. Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak
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