April 9, 2020 / 1:51 AM / 2 months ago

Nursing home deaths rise in Maryland with tests, protective gear scarce

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Retired firefighter Gary Holmberg was only supposed to be at the Pleasant View nursing home in Maryland for a little while, recovering from a fall at his assisted living center.

FILE PHOTO: Medical officials aid a residents from St. Joseph's nursing home to board a bus, after a number of residents tested positive for coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Woodbridge, New Jersey, U.S., March 25, 2020. REUTERS/Stefan Jeremiah

But about a month after he arrived, Holmberg, 77, became one of more than a dozen of the nursing home’s residents who died from the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

“He had a lot, lot more life left, there’s no question,” his said his son Rob Holmberg, 47.

Pleasant View has become the site of one of Maryland’s worst outbreaks, 40 miles outside the U.S. capital of Washington, D.C.

In total, 98 of the facility’s residents and staff have tested positive and 17 people associated with the home have died, according to the Carroll County Department of Health.

The nursing home accounts for 60% of the county’s coronavirus cases and most of its fatalities. Pleasant View’s experience highlights the struggle that nursing homes are having to keep elderly, frail and sick residents healthy in the epidemic.

“They’re stretched. Everybody’s really stressed, operating at a high level. Everybody’s working 16, 18-hour days to try and get things done,” said Kevin Heffner, the president of LifeSpan Network, a group of 300 senior care providers that includes Pleasant View.

SHORT SUPPLY

Maryland Governor Larry Hogan said this week that 81 of Maryland’s more than 200 nursing homes had reported coronavirus cases.

Some nursing homes asked for help before cases were reported, but didn’t get it. Heffner said Pleasant View had asked authorities in Maryland for testing kits on March 10, but was unable to get them immediately. The Pleasant View home did not respond to a request for comment.

Two weeks later, on March 27, the nursing home reported two positive cases of the coronavirus, with 64 more the following day, Carroll County health commissioner Ed Singer told reporters last week.

Hogan said in an interview with C-SPAN that a healthcare worker brought the virus into the nursing home, infecting the residents and other staff members. The Maryland Department of Health did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Heffner said many nursing home staffers may work in multiple facilities, unwittingly turning them into carriers of the virus.

LifeSpan-affiliated care centers have since become more strict with staffers, asking them to stay away for 14 days if they work at a facility where someone has tested positive.

Earlier this week, Hogan issued an executive order for nursing homes in Maryland. It requires testing to be expedited through the state’s health department and the creation of separate observation and isolation areas for residents. It also requires staffers who interact with residents to wear personal protective equipment.

But the equipment has been in short supply. Two of Maryland nursing homes’ main suppliers said they were unlikely to be able to meet the demand, Heffner said. Nursing homes are trying to make up the gaps with supplies from the state’s health department, community groups and industry associations.

FILE PHOTO: A healthcare worker in protective suits helps an elderly person to get off an ambulance at the Southeast Nursing and Rehabilitation Center nursing home during the coronavirus epidemic. San Antonio, Texas, U.S. April 4, 2020. REUTERS/Go Nakamura

Nursing homes nationwide have struggled to find protective gear, said representatives for LeadingAge, an association for non-profit senior care centers.

“Nursing homes are obviously on the front lines of this, given the population that they serve,” said LeadingAge spokeswoman Lisa Sanders. Nursing homes should be prioritized for the equipment just as other healthcare workers are, she said.

For Holmberg, the additional requirements for nursing homes came too late. He died on March 29, days before his test came back positive for the new coronavirus.

Reporting by Makini Brice, Jane Ross and George Tamerlani; Editing by Heather Timmons and Grant McCool

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