Utah nursing home deaths keep rising as AARP advocate calls for more disclosure

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

Editor’s note: The Salt Lake Tribune is providing readers free access to critical local stories about the coronavirus during this time of heightened concern. See more coverage here. To support journalism like this, please consider donating or become a subscriber.

As Utah agencies reported five new coronavirus fatalities Tuesday, nursing homes and long-term care centers continue to be a simmering source in the state’s death count.

Seventeen of the state’s 33 deaths can be traced to such facilities, according to information compiled by the Utah Department of Health and the Salt Lake County Health Department. Three of the five new deaths reported Tuesday in Utah were infections that originated in nursing homes or long-term care facilities.

In Salt Lake County, 12 of 19 deaths are linked to nursing homes or long-term care facilities, said Nicholas Rupp, a spokesman for the county health department.

While Utah has avoided the nursing home carnage that has killed dozens of elderly residents at a time in Washington, for example, or on the East Coast, staffers in the Beehive State nonetheless have seen how difficult it is to keep the coronavirus away from these facilities that care for such vulnerable populations.

“Even if they do everything right, it could spread quickly,” said Allie Spangler, director of membership services at the Utah Health Care Association, which represents the nursing home industry.

As of Tuesday, the Utah Department of Health reported that 82 long-term care facilities have had at least one positive case in either a resident or a staffer, said spokesman Tom Hudachko. That’s about a quarter of all such facilities in the state.

The state health department has not disclosed which facilities have had a positive case or a resulting death.

Pine Creek Rehabilitation and Nursing in Salt Lake City has acknowledged that two of its residents have died after testing positive for COVID-19. Pine Creek is currently operating as a coronavirus facility for about 18 remaining residents.

Danny Harris, advocacy director at AARP Utah, said he recently asked in a statewide medical advisory meeting that the Utah Department of Health begin disclosing which facilities have had a positive case.

“There hasn’t been a lot of clarity on which nursing homes those are,” Harris said Tuesday, “whether residents in those nursing homes are being informed of positive COVID-19 and whether families are being made aware of that.”

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) Danny Harris of AARP Utah during a news conference at the Capitol, Friday, March 2, 2018.

The U.S. Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services announced Sunday that it will make rules requiring facilities to report to residents and their families within 12 hours when a worker or someone living in the facility tests positive. Harris said it’s unclear how families will receive that information. By letter? Email?

Nursing homes and care facilities need to deliver the information effectively, Harris said, “to make sure the residents and the caregivers can make the best decision.”

Sunday’s federal announcement said it had been the nursing homes’ option whether to disclose positive cases. When the new rule is implemented, the feds say, information about positives “may be retained and publicly reported in accordance with law."

To keep out the coronavirus, nursing facilities have banned visitors, making conversations between generations held through window panes one of the pandemic’s defining images. Facilities also have closed dining halls and common areas, ordered staffers to wear masks and other protective equipment at all times and checked staffers for fevers before allowing them to start their shifts.

If residents test positive for COVID-19, Spangler said, nursing homes or long-term care centers make an assessment. Sometimes a lone positive resident can be isolated. Sometimes an entire wing of the building can be cordoned.

(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.

In cases like at Pine Creek, the facility becomes a treatment center for COVID-19 patients. Pine Creek changed its focus after 85-year-old Janice Blodgett died in her sleep April 2. Her stepdaughter, Deanna Avis, has said the family didn’t know Blodgett had tested positive for the virus until after her death.

Spangler said when a facility suspects a COVID-19 case, it can seek testing from a private lab or call the Utah Department of Health and ask it to send a response team to conduct tests. Spangler said some facilities have run into the same testing shortage that has plagued the nationwide response to the virus.

“I know we are hearing about staff and residents who are unable to get tested or timely tests,” Spangler said, “but we are really wanting and encouraging the priority testing for long-term staff and residents.”

State epidemiologist Angela Dunn said Tuesday when the health department goes into a nursing home or long-term care center, it tests everyone for COVID-19. She said plans also are underway to proactively test in such facilities.

Staffers at Utah’s care facilities are “doing a great job,” she said Tuesday, crediting them for quickly identifying and isolating those who are sick, and caring for residents’ physical and mental health needs.

“So thank you," Dunn said, "to all of the long-term care facility staff out there who are essential in this response.”