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Nearly one-fourth of state’s COVID-19 deaths tied to nursing homes

Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office released new figures Sunday showing that 1,860 residents and staff members at long-term care facilities in Illinois have tested positive for COVID-19, and 286 of them have died.

Gov. Pritzker at the daily coronavirus press conference on Saturday.
Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

Deaths tied to nursing homes across 21 Illinois counties now account for just under one-fourth of the state’s 1,290 fatalities related to COVID-19, according to data released Sunday by the state.

Facing pressure to disclose the extent to which the coronavirus has spread through the state’s nursing homes, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s office released the new figures Sunday showing 1,860 residents and staff members at state long-term care facilities have tested positive for COVID-19, and 286 of them have died.

Long-term care facilities in Cook County have by far seen the largest number of cases and deaths. The data show 804 people related to Cook County nursing homes have tested positive for the coronavirus, with 146 of them succumbing to the disease.

Eight facilities in Cook County have seen at least 20 cases of COVID-19, including Bridgeview Healthcare Center, Carlton at the Lake, Center Home for Hispanic Elderly, Elevate Care Chicago North, Glenview Terrace, Symphony of Bronzeville, Symphony of South Shore and Westchester Health and Rehabilitation Center.

Westchester Health and Rehabilitation Center saw the most cases with 43 people testing positive for the virus, and Elevate Care Chicago North followed with 42 cases.

Those living in nursing homes are at a higher risk of infection and can experience more severe symptoms because many have pre-existing medical conditions. Some of the largest clusters of COVID-19 cases across the country have happened at retirement communities and other long-term care facilities, including a nursing home in Joliet where more than 20 coronavirus-related deaths have been reported.

On Friday, Joliet Mayor Bob O’Dekirk called on the Illinois Department of Public Health to investigate “the mess of what happened” at the Symphony of Joliet nursing home.

The state’s first attempt at disclosing the toll was flawed, and a landing page launched this weekend to detail the cases and death totals at long-term care facilities was briefly taken down Sunday. When a revamped page went live hours later, the listed numbers didn’t match the figures that were initially reported.

“There was a definitional error in yesterday’s data which led to some cases being counted twice,” Pritzker spokeswoman Jordan Abudayyeh said.

Pritzker told reporters Saturday he began seeking guidance on how to manage nursing homes before issuing last month’s stay-at-home order. That included calling New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Washington Gov. Jay Inslee, who lead states where nursing homes have been hit particularly hard by the deadly disease.

The state then issued guidelines that cut off visitors from nursing homes and required everyone entering to have their temperature taken, Pritzker said.

“So I’m frustrated by this,” he said. “It’s very hard to deal with congregate settings.”

Pritzker stressed that handling cases in these environments is especially difficult. He noted that infected residents can’t simply be moved out of a facility to a family’s home or a hotel room to control the spread of the virus, although those who are infected can be separated from the rest of the population.

To address an outbreak, a “strike team” now goes into an affected nursing home while infectious disease specialists further advise staff members on procedures and the proper wearing of personal protective equipment.

“[W]e just have a toll here that is higher than I think anybody anticipated or guessed, even with all of the lockdown procedures that we do,” Pritzker said.

The state’s release of more detailed information about COVID-19 infections at long-term care facilities appears to be a response to the mounting calls for more transparency. In a news release Saturday, advocacy groups pressed the Pritzker administration to make public data nursing facilities have been providing to state health officials.

Dr. Rajeev Kumar, medical director of two suburban retirement homes, lauded the state’s disclosure on Sunday but made clear that more still needs to be done to protect the vulnerable residents and staff members at nursing facilities.

“Unfortunately, the toll is greater than the data of confirmed cases suggests,” Kumar said. “Long-term care facilities have continually asked the state to expand testing and introduce rapid testing in nursing homes. We welcome an expansion of testing so that crucial information is available for each facility to better control the spread of the virus, quarantine patients properly and protect our heroic staff.”

Pritzker on Sunday acknowledged testing is crucial until a treatment or vaccine is found — especially for those who work in “congregate” settings.

“You want to know that people who are coming to work with you are not COVID-positive,” said Pritzker, adding that simply screening people for the disease is complicated by the fact that infected people can pass it along without showing symptoms.

“We need more than just a temperature check at the door right now,” he added. “Right now, that’s the only thing that we really have.”