Half of Utah’s nursing homes in contact with state have had a COVID-19 case and families don’t have to be notified

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

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Forty-four of 80 nursing homes and residential care centers the state has had contact with during the coronavirus pandemic have reported that at least one staffer or resident has tested positive for COVID-19, according to the Utah Department of Health.

Only three of those facilities have met the state’s definition of an outbreak by having two or more COVID-19 cases, according to Tom Hudachko, a spokesman for the health department. But the broader figure shows the trouble such facilities can have in keeping the virus away.

Nursing homes and residential care centers have been some of the most horrific hot spots of the pandemic. Older adults and people with underlying medical conditions are particularly at risk after contracting COVID-19.

At least seven of Utah’s 13 coronavirus deaths have been senior citizens who were living in nursing homes, assisted living or other types of residential care centers, according to the state and Salt Lake Tribune reporting. The most serious outbreak appears to be at Pine Creek Rehabilitation and Nursing in Salt Lake City.

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

The state turned it into a facility for COVID-19 patients Saturday after six residents and two workers tested positive for the virus. (A spokesman for Pine Creek said Wednesday that eight staffers have tested positive.)

Patients who tested negative were moved to other care centers.

In all, Utah reported 1,846 coronavirus cases as of Wednesday. The 80 nursing homes and care centers that have been in some contact with the state during the pandemic are a portion of 356 such facilities across Utah.

State epidemiologist Angela Dunn said Utah’s health professionals have known since the beginning of the pandemic that nursing homes are at risk and have tried to educate them on the best hygiene and prevention methods.

“Once we’ve identified COVID-19 cases in these facilities,” Dunn said at a news conference Wednesday, “we work directly with the facility and the local health department to make sure best practices are in place.”

That means segregating infected and not infected patients, Dunn said, and sometimes transferring those cohorts to other facilities.

Some nursing homes or care centers have disclosed the extra steps they’ve taken to prevent COVID-19, including banning visits from family, serving meals in residents’ rooms rather than cafeterias, and checking staffers for high temperatures and other symptoms at the start of their shifts.

State regulations require care facilities to have policies in place to notify residents or their families of emergencies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised nursing homes to notify the local health department immediately if residents show signs of a severe respiratory infection the likes of which the coronavirus can produce.

But Hudachko said there is no requirement upon nursing homes or care centers “to broadly notify other residents or their families.”

(Photo courtesy Deanna Avis) Janice Blodgett in this undated photo. Blodgett died April 2, 2020, of the coronavirus, according to her family. She was 85.

Deanna Avis has said her family originally was told that her stepmother, Janice Blodgett, died in her sleep April 2. She was 85 and a Pine Creek resident.

But Avis, in Facebook posts, said a Pine Creek representative later explained Blodgett was Utah’s eighth coronavirus death. Avis said the family found out only after a funeral in which the family touched the body. Avis declined to answer questions from a reporter Wednesday.

“Unfortunately,” Avis wrote on Facebook, “the Salt Lake nursing home, Pine Creek — who was aware that Janice tested positive before her death — did not inform us nor the Bountiful funeral home who last week was invited into the locked facility without any warning or added precautions.”

Pine Creek is operated by Cascades Healthcare. A spokesman for that company, Derek White, said staffers did not learn Blodgett had tested positive for COVID-19 until the day after her death.

“We immediately alerted public health authorities,” White wrote in an email to The Tribune. “Also, on that same day, we were contacted by a separate member of the family and we informed that person of the COVID-19 test results.

“We should have followed up and contacted the designated family member with this new information and we apologize for not having done so. Moving forward, we plan to provide regular updates — which initially will be daily — to our residents, their families and our staff, as well as the public, through our website because we believe that is the right thing to do.”

The risk to nursing homes has families considering their options.

Daniel James is pleased with the care his 79-year-old father has received at a memory care center in Bountiful, but he is making a contingency plan to bring his dad home if the coronavirus breaks out at the center.

“We’re monitoring [the situation] day to day,” James said. “It’s the center of my life right now.”

James’ father has dementia. Before the coronavirus, James visited his dad daily. Lately, there have been visits every other day through a glass door.

“He doesn’t understand coronavirus,” James said. “Previous to this, I had not missed a day with him for a year and a half.”