Where are WA’s long-term care facilities at, 2 years into COVID and amid a ‘whole new crisis’

Inside a Bellingham nursing home, life seems a bit closer to normal compared to the past two years, although workers at the 122-bed facility still feel like they are in crisis mode.

The North Cascades Health and Rehabilitation Center is no longer locked, so visitors can enter and see loved ones. Residents having a rough night can stay at the nurses station and do some arts and crafts. There are weekly coronavirus tests and workers only have to wear surgical masks.

But there is still a frantic energy in the building, said Shelly Hughes, a certified practical nurse. She wonders: What if there was another outbreak of COVID-19, like the brutal one they experienced this winter? With such a high turnover, will there be enough staff for the week? What will happen tomorrow?

“The level of frustration is high, among workers and residents alike,” Hughes said. “We feel like we’re past the pandemic in many ways, but we have this brand new crisis.”

Few settings in Washington have witnessed the devastation of the pandemic as severely as the state’s 4,760 long-term care facilities.

Washington’s adult nursing homes, assisted living facilities and family homes account for 30% of all COVID deaths over two years, but only 3% of total cases, according to the state Department of Health. from Washington. Due to visiting restrictions, even residents who survived the virus were still susceptible to the mental and physical effects of isolation. Workers experienced high rates of burnout amid low wages and a continued threat of illness.

Now, more than two years into the pandemic, COVID cases and deaths are relatively low and vaccination rates are stable, though recall rates are lagging among nursing home workers.

Meanwhile, the number of nursing homes reporting understaffing has increased significantly since the pandemic began, according to a Seattle Times analysis of data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which does not track other types of workers. long-term care facilities. .

As of mid-April, 3,779 people associated with a long-term care facility — the vast majority of whom were residents — had died of complications from COVID, according to the DOH. There have been a total of 40,774 cases.

Cases and deaths plummeted from January 2021, largely due to widespread vaccinations. For nearly a year, there were 40 or fewer verified COVID deaths per week, until the height of the omicron surge, when, at its peak, 57 new deaths were reported for a week in January 2022 The number of new cases rose to 1,454 in one week in January.

North Cascades Health and Rehab had an outbreak during the omicron winter and several residents died, according to Hughes. The outbreak was traced to a visitor, she added.

“It was really brutal,” she said. “It was as horrible as I had imagined.”

Since March, fewer than 100 new cases and 10 new deaths associated with long-term care facilities have been reported per week.

The omicron spike also forced many workers to stay home, causing widespread staff shortages. The staffing situation at nursing homes has stabilized since the peak, but remains an issue at facilities across the state, said Bea Rector, acting assistant secretary for the Aging and Supports Administration at term from the state health and social services department.

“Understandably, many caregivers have chosen to leave the profession after enduring long hours during the pandemic,” she said in an email.

About half of the state’s nursing homes report being understaffed, according to CMS data, about three times more than the number reporting low staffing levels at the start of the pandemic. Patricia Hunter, the state’s long-term care ombudsman, said she continues to hear complaints about low staffing levels causing poor care and safety issues.

“I’ve heard from nursing home staff who have done this job for many years that the quality of care and staffing levels are the worst they’ve seen in their long careers,” Hunter said. . “They say staffing has always been bad, but now it’s so bad.”

In nursing homes, vaccination rates among residents and workers are higher than the national percentage, although the recall rate lags behind among workers. Among residents, 90% are fully vaccinated, compared to 88% nationally, according to the CMS, which counts a person as fully vaccinated two weeks or more after receiving a two-dose Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or the one-dose vaccine. Johnson dose & Johnson Vaccine.

Of Washington nursing home staff, who should be fully vaccinated but not required to be backed up, 92% received their shots, compared to 87% nationally. All residents and workers are eligible to receive reminders, but 83% of residents and 47% of workers have done so.

CMS “continues to encourage all people eligible for additional doses to consider continued vaccination as an important step towards protecting people,” the agency said in a statement.

This article was written with the support of a Journalism Fellowship from the Gerontological Society of America, the Journalists Network on Generations, and the Commonwealth Fund.

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