Nursing homes and other care facilities for the elderly are stockpiling masks and thermometers, preparing for staff shortages and screening visitors to protect their particularly vulnerable population from the coronavirus.
In China, where the outbreak began, the disease has been deadlier for the elderly.
In Italy, the center of the virus outbreak in the EU, the 100 people who died were either elderly, sick with other complications, or both.
Of the 22 deaths across the US as of Monday, at least 14 had been linked to a Seattle-area nursing home, along with many other infections among residents, staff and family members.
That has put other facilities in the US on alert, especially in states with large populations of older residents, such as Florida and California. About 2.5-M people live in long-term care facilities in the United States.
“For people over the age of 80 the mortality rate could be as high as 15%,” said the President of the nursing home trade group American Health Care Association.
The US government is now focusing all nursing home inspections on infection control, singling out facilities in cities with confirmed cases and those previously cited for not following protocol.
Federal rules already require the homes to have an infection prevention specialist on staff, and many have long had measures in place to deal with seasonal flus and other ailments that pose a higher risk to the elderly.
Even so, facilities’ response to the coronavirus has varied across the country.
In Florida, where about 160,000 seniors live in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities, mandatory visitor screening is not in place “because we’re not at that stage,” said a spokeswoman for the Florida Health Care Association.
Elder care centers are posting signs urging visitors to stay away if they have symptoms, and are looking into alternate ways for families to connect, such as through video chats.
Concierges in the 14 Florida nursing homes run by the Palm Gardens corporation are now giving all visitors a short questionnaire asking about symptoms, recent travel and contact with others, said a company Vice President
He said the nursing homes also have purchased extra thermometers in case they need to check visitors’ temperatures and stockpiled preventive supplies, including medical masks, protective eyewear and gowns. In the laundry rooms, they are making sure to use enough bleach and heat to kill any lingering virus germs.
Under federal regulations, nursing homes are considered a patient’s residence, and the facilities want to keep them connected with family, especially when they are near death.
“I don’t think you can flat-out prevent visitors,” said Dr. David A. Nace, director of long-term care and flu programs at the University of Pittsburgh Department of Medicine. He oversees 300 facilities in Pennsylvania.
For now, facilities in most states are stressing basic precautions, including hand washing and coughing etiquette.
Centers throughout the country are also trying to prepare their staffs for the worst.
“If 1 of our sites has an outbreak, we quickly will deplete the staff in that location,” said the CEO of The Good Samaritan Society, one of the largest not-for-profit providers of senior care services in the country, with 19,000 employees in 24 states.
Some families are considering pulling their loved ones out of facilities and taking them home.