In one of the most devastating health debacles in our nation’s history, some 54,000 residents and workers in long-term care facilities died of causes related to the coronavirus within four months of the first known infection. That death toll has since crossed 100,000. Here’s the story of what happened this past spring, in the words of those who were there.
ON FEB. 29, a science and health website called Stat broke the news that “the new coronavirus” had surfaced in a long-term care facility outside Seattle. The headline hinted at the chaos to come: First COVID-19 Outbreak in a U.S. Nursing Home Raises Concerns
With its stately evergreens and five-star federal ratings, the Life Care Center of Kirkland appeared to be in top form. But within a matter of days, 27 of the 108 residents and 25 of the 180 staff started showing symptoms of a mysterious illness already rampaging through 46 countries, with more than 85,000 cases worldwide.
Whatever this wretched plague was, nursing homes would soon bear the brunt of its impact. By the fourth week in June, at least 54,000 residents and workers had died from the coronavirus in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities in the United States. Nearly 264,000 people were infected across 9,912 facilities.
One statistic stands out: Residents of long-term care facilities constitute less than 1 percent of the U.S. population, yet 43 percent of all COVID-19 deaths through June occurred in those places. The number has changed little since.
For the residents, nursing assistants, doctors, families, administrators, public officials and “last responders” on the front lines, numbers alone cannot capture the terror, frustration, exhaustion and occasional miracle story that occurred during the early months of the crisis. In their own words, here’s how the situation unfolded during those first 18 weeks, up to the point in late June when newly reported COVID-19 cases in nursing homes began to stabilize.
But make no mistake: COVID-19 wasn’t vanquished from nursing homes in June. By Thanksgiving, the death toll in America’s long-term care facilities had surpassed 100,000, and each and every site is still grappling at this very moment with providing safety and care to its residents and workers as the pandemic continues unabated.
Nancy Butner (Life Care’s northwest divisional vice president): I’d heard in January and early February that there was a virus out there. It sounded like you could get it if you traveled to China. I wasn’t worried about it.
Cami Neidigh (daughter of Life Care resident Geneva Wood, 91): Mom went into Life Care for rehab in mid-January after she had a stroke. She was supposed to be discharged in early March, but she fell and broke her hip the last week of February. That was right when everyone around her started getting sick.
Life Care resident Geneva Wood: My roommate was coughing. Everybody was saying bronchitis. Then I got a cough and could hardly breathe. Thought it was pneumonia. I remember them saying I had a 102 fever. I guess I didn’t know enough to be scared.
Cami Neidigh: You’d walk down the hallway and half the staff were wearing masks and half weren’t, so you didn’t really think it was that serious.
Life Care VP Butner: We had no idea how bad things were. We’d seen flus before. This was different. Flus have symptoms. Our nurses were listening for a labored dry cough and breathing problems. What we didn’t understand was how many people were asymptomatic.
Nurse: “She’s running a temp. We think she, um.... This is the place that has coronavirus ...”
Timothy Killian (Life Care spokesman): We all grew up with these movies about pandemics, in which the government vans swoop in and take control. As the situation escalated and the facility went into lockdown and people started dying, I kept expecting some type of coordinated response, but we saw nothing of that nature.
Seema Verma (administrator, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services): When the situation emerged at the health care facility in Seattle, I called the vice president’s team. We were very concerned. I really wish we had had more and better information from China in terms of the impact on elderly people. That was a key missing piece that would have made our jobs a little bit easier on the front of it.
Cami Neidigh: Mom got better, thankfully. She’s a tough old Texas broad. But Mom’s roommate didn’t make it.
Geneva Wood: It was a lot of prayer — and potato soup. That’s all I could eat.
On Feb. 29, the Seattle & King County Public Health Department announced America’s first COVID-19 nursing home death (a Life Care resident). Days later, tests confirmed that two other residents had died of the virus on Feb. 26. Over the coming weeks, 100 residents — almost the entire population of that facility — would test positive for the virus, and 37 would die.
Life Care VP Butner: Night shift was the worst. That’s when patients would decline. The emotion was like a bomb going off in your nursing home. We’d cared for these patients for years, and all we could do was pick up the pieces.
Spokesman Killian: We had 20 news trucks in our parking lot. Everybody was pointing fingers and laying blame, looking for what we did wrong. Meanwhile, this thing was spreading.
'North Carolina Coronavirus Case Linked to Washington State Nursing Home'
Lori Porter (cofounder of the National Association of Health Care Assistants, which represents 26,000 certified nursing assistants, or CNAs): The texting started and it didn’t stop. My CNAs around the country were worried. The virus was popping up in Michigan, in New York. Are we in danger? Should we go in to work tonight? Tell us if it’s safe. Is this a hoax? Where can we can find PPE [personal protective equipment]? No one was even talking about testing.
Danielle Ivory (New York Times investigative reporter): We literally started with a spreadsheet when cases started appearing, a totally manual collection effort. We were going state by state, calling county officials and medical examiners’ offices, verifying lists on Twitter, just trying to gather this information, because nobody at the federal level was organizing these numbers. So many of the cases were nursing home residents and staff.
CMS' Verma: The vice president asked me to join the coronavirus task force. We had geriatricians, surgeons, infectious disease doctors working day and night to put guidelines together. For me this was a life-and-death issue. We knew every single day could make a difference. And keep in mind, nursing homes were only one piece of it. The CMS has jurisdiction over the entire health care system.
Elaine Ryan, AARP’s vice president of government affairs for state advocacy: Early on, there was a lack of prioritization for nursing homes. Hospitals were seen as the epicenter of the crisis — but the epicenter of deaths was nursing homes.
Nursing advocate Porter: We had nurses using trash bags as gowns, bandannas, anything they could tie around their faces. They’d go home and sew buttons on homemade face shields. They just weren’t getting the equipment.