Utah nursing homes keep having coronavirus outbreaks. Industry groups warn it will get worse.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) William E. Christoffersen Veterans Home on Football Drive, Wednesday, May 27, 2020.

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Heather Smith’s mother was at a nursing home in New York. The family decided to move her to a facility near relatives in Salt Lake City to give her better care.

It looked like a great decision when New York emerged as a coronavirus hot spot. Smith’s mother is 75, has dementia and the daughter didn’t want the virus infecting her mom.

“I knew we were screwed if it did,” Smith said. “And now we’re screwed. And I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to save her.”

Smith’s mother has tested positive — though she has not shown any symptoms — along with other residents and staff of her care center as COVID-19 continues to spread through Utah’s long-term care facilities despite efforts to keep it out.

Nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, homes for the disabled, assisted living communities and similar types of facilities banned visitors when the pandemic struck in March. They closed common areas, ended group dining and took other precautions. Still, 34 such centers now are on the Utah Department of Health’s list of long-term care facilities in the midst of an outbreak.

There were nine facilities on the list in mid-May and 27 on Friday.

Two industry groups warned Tuesday that the crisis will grow worse without more and faster coronavirus testing and ensuring that care facilities have adequate supplies of personal protective equipment.

In a joint letter to governors, the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living pointed to data indicating infections at nursing homes are most likely in places — such as Utah — with high rates of community outbreak.

These outbreaks are delaying long-term care facilities opening to visitors, the letter stated, and preventing residents from seeing their families.

“Nursing homes and assisted living communities,” it said, “cannot stop the virus by ourselves — not without testing, personal protective equipment (PPE), staff support and funding, and not without support from the public health sector.”

Utah has sent portions of its PPE stockpile to area health departments, where long-term care facilities can draw upon the supplies as needed.

How to help

A group of health care professionals called Sewing for Lives is helping workers at long-term care facilities by sewing masks and taking donations of masks, cotton or money. Go to www.sewingforlives.com to learn more.

The concern from the two national associations about community spread echoes remarks last week from Dr. Allyn Nakashima, a program manager at the Utah Department of Health. During an episode of The Salt Lake Tribune’s “Trib Talk” podcast, she said that long-term care facilities in the Beehive State are working hard to keep the virus away, but high rates of infection among the general public lead to infections among workers, who then unknowingly carry the coronavirus into the facilities.

“When you see spikes in the disease in the community,” Nakashima said, “then we’re going to see spikes in the number of health care facilities that get this infection introduced into the facility.”

Long-term care residents, who tend to be older and have underlying health conditions, are especially vulnerable to developing complications from the virus. According to the state health department, 95 of Utah’s 226 COVID-19 deaths have been attributed to the facilities.

In all, 773 residents of long-term care facilities have been infected, as well as 606 workers.

Of the 34 facilities with current outbreaks, most are along the Wasatch Front, but the infections have expanded into rural Utah. One rehabilitation center in Nephi is on the list, and three deaths and 50 positive cases have been linked to the Four Corners Regional Care Center in Blanding.

The nursing home where Smith’s mother resides wanted to move her to City Creek Post Acute, which has been turned into a care center for COVID-19 patients. The family balked. Smith worried her mother would just get a bigger dose of the virus.

“She doesn’t have any symptoms,” Smith said. “So what if it’s a false positive? You’re sending her to her death.”

Smith said the nursing home — which the daughter asked not be publicly identified — agreed to keep her mother there when officials determined City Creek didn’t have the means to keep dementia patients from roaming that facility. Smith said her mother doesn’t understand the need for special hygiene precautions and doesn’t easily stay in her room.

Some hopeful news at a long-term care facility did emerge Tuesday. Salt Lake City’s William E. Christoffersen Veterans Home, where 13 residents have died from COVID-19, now has only six residents who have tested positive and they remain asymptomatic. The facility’s operator, Avalon Health Care Group, said 32 have recovered.