The Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington is a skilled nursing home with the highest rating possible from the federal agency that oversees Medicare.
It’s also the epicenter of the most deadly outbreak of coronavirus in America to-date.
In the Washington State cluster, many of the coronavirus cases and fatalities have been tied to the long-term care facility in Kirkland. While younger people with the virus rarely experience drastic symptoms, it was reported that many of the nursing home patients died within hours of showing the first signs of illness.
Life Care Center has been quarantined, and photos published by Reuters show adult children waiting outside the contaminated building where their parents are trapped.
It’s a nightmare scene.
Already, the surrounding hospitals have been overrun by patients with severe respiratory issues. Some have been diagnosed as cases of coronavirus while others await testing due to shortages in testing equipment.
Decisions made in the next several days and weeks will determine whether coronavirus cases spike in the area or whether the cluster can be contained. The suburban Seattle community is being closely monitored by public health officials across the country who worry with good cause that they may soon have to reckon with a similar scenario.
After all, if a 5-star-rated nursing home with a fairly good record (such as the Life Care Center), has been hit this hard by the virus, what happens when a patient at a facility with a more questionable history gets infected?
Nursing Homes, Infection Control, and the Spread of Coronavirus
At this point, no one knows how the first patients at Life Care Center became infected. The threat posed by viral infections in nursing homes, however, is all too well understood.
Last year, the spread of the so-called “super bug,” Candida auris, brought national attention to the unfortunate fact that nursing homes are often breeding grounds for drug-resistant fungi and diseases. Because of the vulnerable patient population and its wide range of medical conditions, rigorous infection control is a must for nursing homes.
Unfortunately, infection control doesn’t always happen.
Even the Life Care Center of Kirkland, which had the highest quality rating from Nursing Home Compare, had issues with infection control. In its most recent health inspection, from April of 2019, regulators cited the facility for failure to “provide and implement an infection prevention and control program.”
Many long-term care facilities have a much worse track record than Life Care Center. Some have checkered histories of nursing home abuse and neglect, whereas others have high profile incidents where residents got hurt or died.
Small mistakes have huge consequences in nursing homes, and during the coronavirus outbreak, that truth is only intensified.
Moving Forward Once a Nursing Home Has Been Infected
At Life Care Center, cleaning crews, medical workers, and volunteers have succeeded in keeping the nursing home operational, though a fraction of the usual number of beds are occupied. A spokesman for Life Care estimated that 50% of the 180 employees were showing symptoms and have been asked to stay home.
The center will be testing all employees and is slated to be cleaned by hazmat professionals, but at least 20 patients still inside have tested positive. Patients have the right to leave if they want to, though some have opted to stay. What comes next for the families and the country is uncertain.
At a congressional hearing on March 11, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, testified in no uncertain terms that “we will see more cases, and things will get worse.”
The doctor, who has worked under 6 different administrations, wanted to make sure that lawmakers knew what they are up against. Fauci also said that any sort of coronavirus vaccine for the general population was a year away, at best. He encouraged those in charge to take measures that would help contain the spread of the virus.
State and federal authorities have taken precautionary measures that include limiting and restricting visits for families of nursing home residents. While it may be painful for families to be separated during such fearful times, the risk of spreading the virus remains extremely high.
Ideally, the actions being taken prove effective and the coronavirus ceases to become a threat. There are promising signs in China, which seems to have contained the virus in their country.
The front lines of the fight against the spread of the coronavirus change week to week, and it is impossible to tell where the next cluster will emerge. At the same time, nursing home residents and their families should be aware that these facilities can quickly turn into deadly hot spots.