Long-term care facilities in Illinois continue seeing declines in COVID-19 outbreaks, deaths

Symphony of Joliet nursing home in Joliet was hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic.

Symphony of Joliet nursing home in Joliet was hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. (Abel Uribe / Chicago Tribune)

Even as concerns rise about a resurgence of COVID-19 cases in Illinois, newly released state data show that deaths and outbreaks continue to drop among long-term care facilities, where most deaths have been concentrated.

As of Friday, weekly deaths at long-term care facilities dropped below 100 for the first time since the Illinois Department of Public Health began publishing more detailed data in April. The latest weekly tally, 84 deaths, is less than a fifth of the high mark two months ago.

Death figures are characterized by health experts as a lagging indicator of infection, because of the time it takes someone to get infected, then, for those unable to easily fight off the virus, get sick enough to lose the battle after days or weeks of hospitalization. So trends being seen now were fueled by actions weeks or months ago, and aren’t necessarily an indicator of how much the virus is spreading now.

The latest data come amid a fresh wave of new cases cropping up across the country, particularly of younger people, as the nation enters a holiday weekend when health officials worry that gatherings will spread infection.

While nursing homes remain largely on lockdown, health officials have said the virus has been unwittingly spread by workers who may catch it from friends, family or strangers in the community, then spread it where they work, even at times without showing symptoms. One hard-hit Joliet facility attributed much of the outbreak there to a so-called super spreader staffer who set up tables in more than 40 rooms before he fell ill and died.

Fortunately most people recover — researchers believe less than 1% of those infected end up dying from the virus — but the virus is particularly deadly to those older or with underlying health conditions, the type of people living in nursing homes.

And that’s reflected in Illinois’ death figures, where so far 55% of Illinoisans who have died from the virus can be traced back to long-term care facilities, which include nursing homes, assisted living centers and other large, congregate-care facilities.

Compounding the problem have been shortages of staff and gear in an industry where advocates have long complained about the quality of care provided. The pandemic shone a spotlight on long-festering concerns, while fueling frustrations the government wasn’t doing enough to best ensure the safety of vulnerable residents as outbreaks tore through facilities.

At last count, more than 40 facilities across the state had at least 20 residents or staff die from the virus, much of it occurring during the height of deaths statewide in May.

The latest data show that, as of Friday, not only has the number of deaths continued to subside, but also have the number of broader outbreaks.

The state defines an outbreak as a facility having anyone, resident or worker, testing positive in the past 28 days. And in the past two weeks, the number of facilities has dropped from 558 to 534.

In that same time, the number of facilities that have gotten past an outbreak, going at least 28 days without someone else testing positive, has grown from 35 to 80.

The improving figures have prompted state officials to allow facilities to accept visitors again, something the industry and advocates sought.

Still, even with the more positive numbers, advocates and industry officials have expressed caution, noting continued concerns over staff and equipment shortages, as well as continued frustrations over testing.

As states have reopened, government officials have pushed all facilities to test workers and staff at least once, then periodically based on circumstances.

Illinois has pushed that responsibility onto facilities, without reviewing each facility’s plan or the extent to which it has begun or continues to test workers and residents. Industry officials have complained of the struggle to line up and pay for testing, and get results quick enough to spot outbreaks.

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