Four of Utah’s five new coronavirus deaths are tied to nursing homes

(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Pine Creek Rehabilitation and Nursing facility, April 4, 2020.

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Four of the five people added Monday to Utah’s death toll from COVID-19 were in nursing homes, bringing the state’s total to 13.

All five patients died on Saturday, Angela Dunn, the state’s epidemiologist, said at a Monday news briefing by the Utah Department of Health.

Two of the new deaths were linked to an outbreak at a resident care facility in Salt Lake City, where a previous death was reported last week: a woman over the age of 85 died Thursday, for a total of three COVID-19 deaths at the center.

The health department took over the 34-bed center last weekend after six residents and two workers tested positive; it is now a dedicated COVID-19 care facility. While the department hasn’t released its name, Pine Creek Rehabilitation and Nursing, which has 34 beds, announced on Facebook that it had an outbreak and was temporarily transitioning to a coronavirus-only facility.

Now 23 residents and two employees have tested positive, Dunn said. The 10 residents who tested negative have been transferred to a sister facility, she said, where they are in a separate wing and cared for by staff dedicated to that wing.

Pine Creek Rehab and Nursing was one of five Utah nursing homes listed by federal investigators as a candidate for remedial attention after a July inspection identified seventeen violations — nearly double the average for Utah facilities. Most of the violations were related to medication errors, record-keeping problems, and failures to communicate with residents’ doctors, according to the inspection report.

The other two nursing home deaths reported on Monday were in a long-term care facility in Utah County, and a more extensive investigation is underway there, Dunn said. One other person at that center, which she did not identify, also has tested positive, she said.

Ralph Clegg, executive director and local health officer for the Utah County Health Department, said he did not know details of the investigation.

He added: “That’s information we just barely received ... I can’t give you any details because I don’t have details on that, but information we have is yes, there’s been two deaths in a nursing home.”

The four new deaths connected to nursing homes were patients over 60 who all had underlying health conditions, Dunn said.

Nursing homes around the country have been a breeding ground for the coronavirus. When Utah reported the March 29 death of a woman who had tested positive in a Weber County care center, Dunn described residents in long-term care locations as “our most at-risk population."

The fifth patient who died Saturday was hospitalized and was under 60 years old, Dunn said. He was from Salt Lake County.

The overall number of confirmed cases is at 1,675, up 70 cases from Sunday’s figures, the department reported. There have been 138 people hospitalized for COVID-19, up 14 from Sunday’s tally.

The low number of new cases reported Monday is likely a reflection of low testing over the weekend, Dunn said.

Overall, 33,394 people in Utah have been tested for coronavirus, according to state records. That’s an increase of 2,502 people since Sunday’s report.

The state is testing between 2,500 and 3,000 people a day, Dunn said. The state lab can handle more than 4,000 tests a day — though a shortage of swabs is making it difficult to collect specimens from that many patients, she said.

The state’s lab capacity still is short of the 7,000 tests a day Gov. Gary Herbert has set for a statewide goal.

“We are confident in [the tests’] ability to detect disease” in testing people who have COVID-19 symptoms, Dunn said. The rate of false-positive and false-negative results go up when testing those who don’t show symptoms, she said.

The state has the option to test for COVID-19 after death, Dunn said, but has not done so in any cases yet.

Dunn said that with the ongoing increase in cases, the department will be calling and emailing more people to trace who has been in contact with those exposed to the coronavirus. “It is important that you call us back,” Dunn said.

For residents worried about calls from people masquerading as health officials and trying to scam them, Dunn added, “we will never ask for any financial information, we will never ask for your Social Security number, and we certainly will never ask for money.”

And Dunn said it’s up to Herbert whether the current statewide stay-at-home recommendation becomes an order. “We are constantly updating Governor Herbert with the latest data,” Dunn said. “We are expecting everyone to stay at home.”

Dunn said that if the statewide recommendation, which is an order in some counties, is lifted too soon, there could be a resurgence of higher case numbers.

State officials have learned of “national shortages” of chloroquine and hydroxychloroquine, Dunn said, but Utah hasn’t seen those shortages locally. An assertion that the state has taken over distribution of the drugs — which President Donald Trump has touted as a possible COVID-19 treatment — is “a miscommunication,” Dunn said.

The claim was made on Twitter by “Dr. Bill," who identifies himself on the platform as a physician. He has made the same claim on “The Debbie Aldrich Show,” a Utah-based conservative podcast on which he is an occasional contributor. (Aldrich ran unsuccessfully for the 3rd District Congressional seat in 2017, in the special election after Rep. Jason Chaffetz resigned.)

Herbert tweeted Sunday night: “The State has not taken over distribution of hydroxychloroquine, though high demand may be creating shortages."

One of Trump’s advisers, Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease expert, has often downplayed the role the medications might have in the pandemic. They are used as a treatment for malaria and also are prescribed to patients with chronic conditions, such as lupus and rheumatoid arthritis.

The Utah Board of Pharmacy voted on March 24 to draft regulations to limit distribution of the two drugs to discourage panic buying and to keep the drugs available for those chronic sufferers.

Herbert, in his tweet, linked to the Utah Department of Health’s suggestions on treatment for COVID-19. Those guidelines point out that there are no Food and Drug Administration-approved medications for COVID-19, and that there have been small, preliminary studies suggesting that hydroxychloroquine and chloroquine “may be beneficial to present lung complications.”

The state guidelines recommend that if a doctor does prescribe the drugs, he or she should do so in small doses, to avoid overdose risks and limit side effects.