Coronavirus cases in nursing homes have surged to an all-time high, driven by spread of the virus in Sunbelt states, according to a new report.

An analysis of federal data shows 9,715 COVID-19 cases during the week of July 26, the most recent data available. The figures eclipsed the previous high of 9,421 cases in the last week of May, according to the report by the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living.

Nearly four in five of coronavirus infections were at facilities in Sunbelt states, where total nursing home cases nearly tripled since mid-June, according to the report. 

Deaths are on the upswing with 1,706 COVID-19 fatalities during the week ending July 26, a 22% increase from the previous week, but still well below the 3,130 deaths reported in the last week of May. 

Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, said community spread and slow testing turnaround that delays identifying the virus in vulnerable homes remain persistent problems. 

“Unfortunately, we’ve definitely taken a step back,” Parkinson said. 

‘Pushing the frontiers’: Long lines for COVID tests, stressed labs delay results as demand spikes

Parkinson said the rise in cases reflects last month’s spread of the virus in hot-spot communities in the South and West. Nursing homes can be particularly vulnerable because residents live in close quarters and are more likely to have underlying medical conditions that make them susceptible to COVID-19 complications or death. 

“The public needs to make the decision that the lives of the people in these buildings matter and then make the simple sacrifice to wear a mask,” he said.  “That would solve a lot of this.”

Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services finds ‘immediate jeopardy’ at 180 nursing homes in 22 states

The federal government has provided hundreds of millions in emergency funds to nursing homes and long-term care facilities to prevent infections and protect residents and staff. The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services has said it will ship to all nursing homes point-of-care testing machines that deliver rapid results.

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Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Administrator Seema Verma said Thursday she was “deeply concerned’ about the upswing in cases. And, on Friday, her agency announced it has levied more than $15 million in fines against 3,400-plus nursing homes for infection control lapses and failure to report COVID-19 data. 

‘States duking it out for supply’: Lack of federal plan leads to coronavirus testing delays

Since March, CMS and states have conducted infection-control inspections at more than 15,000 nursing homes. Deficiencies at 180 homes in 22 states triggered “immediate jeopardy” findings, which the agency describes as conditions that caused or were likely to cause serious injury, harm, impairment or death. 

Parkinson said it’s the wrong time to fine and shut down homes that are striving to protect workers and residents. 

“We don’t think the right approach is to issue fines and penalties when people are in a crisis,” Parkinson said. “We think the right approach is to offer a helping hand and to collaborate as we get through the crisis.”

Parkinson said the next few weeks will be critical to gauge whether the surge in new cases will be followed by more fatalities, which typically lag new cases. But he said drug treatments and care for COVID patients in nursing homes has improved since the early days of the pandemic. Dozens of residents at Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington, died after the virus swept through the home in February and March, the nation’s first warning of how deadly the virus could be in such settings. 

COVID-19 testing at nursing homes is ‘actually working’ in some places

Others think testing mandates have identified cases at nursing homes and long-term care facilities sooner.

Pennsylvania required universal testing of staff and residents of nursing homes by the end of July and assisted-living centers by the end of August. Nursing homes have identified far more cases, but most of the cases have been mild or no symptoms, said Dr. David Nace, chief medical officer for University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Senior Communities.

‘Totally unacceptable’: Testing delays force labs to prioritize COVID-19 tests for some, not others

“Many of these cases would have gone unnoticed otherwise,” Nace said.

Nace said UPMC, which manages 35 care facilities in western Pennsylvania, has been able to isolate residents who’ve tested for the virus and limit the spread within facilities.  

“The argument’s always been detect the case early so you can isolate and limit the spread,” said Nace, a professor and geriatrics expert. “Maybe that’s actually working.” 

Alltucker is on Twitter as @kalltucker or can be emailed at alltuck@usatoday.com

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Nursing home COVID-19 cases near 10K — an all-time high, report says



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