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COVID-19 cases in Alabama nursing homes likely to rise

By MARY SELL and CAROLINE BECK, Alabama Daily News

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Cases of COVID-19 have been reported in more than 70  Alabama nursing homes, including a veterans home, and officials say they expect the numbers to increase. 

Seventy-three nursing homes in 39 counties have reported at least one COVID-19 positive resident or employee, Alabama Nursing Home Association spokesman John Matson said on Wednesday. 

While the number of new reported COVID-19 cases in Alabama appears to have passed its high-water mark, Matson said that in other parts of the country nursing homes’ cases peaked about two weeks after the general population.

“If what we’ve seen in other places holds true, we could see cases rise,” Matson told Alabama Daily News. 

At the veterans home in Alexander City, 43 residents and 30 employees had tested positive as of Tuesday, Alabama Department of Veterans Affairs Commissioner Kent Davis told Alabama Daily News this week. The first positive case was confirmed on April 8.

“The numbers have gone up steadily the last week and a half,” Davis said. 

No cases have yet been reported in the department’s homes in Pell City, Huntsville or Bay Minette, Davis said. But because he pushed for testing of all residents in the Alexander City facility recently, he expects additional cases to be announced at that site soon.  That testing happened on Saturday. 

“My biggest fear is an asymptomatic carrier we don’t know about,” Davis said. 

There are 8 confirmed deaths resulting from COVID-19 in the Bill Nichols State Veterans Home in Alexander City as of Thursday morning.

About 178 Alabamians have died from COVID-19 since mid-March, according to the Alabama Department of Public Health. About 77% of them were over the age of 65. Nearly 700 of the state’s more than 5,600 cases, as of Thursday morning, were in long-term care residents and employees.

Matson said the ADPH long-term care numbers include not just nursing homes, but assisted-living facilities too. The Alabama Nursing Home Association is not tracking total cases or related deaths.

Both Matson and Davis spoke to the need for more testing. 

“The sooner we know what we’re dealing with, the sooner was can work to treat it,” Matson said.

He said one of the challenges has been that under Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines, nursing homes have been a “priority 2” for testing and available testing has focused on those with symptoms.

Matson said asymptomatic positives have been shown in some of the association members’ homes.

Davis said he’s trying to get all residents at the veterans department’s three other homes tested. In the meantime, infectious disease experts have visited the homes to ensure everything possible is being done to protect residents. 

“Our primary mission is taking care of those veterans, and seeing this disease get into even one of our homes, it has been a tough, tough week,” Davis said. 

On Saturday, a specialized unit of the Alabama National Guard disinfected the 131-resident Alexander City facility. 

Having 30 staff members out of about 200 test positive has also been a challenge and outside personnel has been brought in, Davis said.

“It creates an issue for us for staffing, because it takes them out of the mix,” he said.

Davis said community support and donations to the veterans’ homes has been significant, including personal protection equipment.

Matson said personal protective equipment, or PPE, is a significant need for the associations’ members.

“For one COVID-positive nursing home resident, you can expect to use 22 full sets of PPE in one 24-hour period,” Matson said because of all the “touch points” staff has while caring for a resident.

“I can’t help you brush your teeth from six feet away, I can’t help you get dressed from six feet away,” he said. 

Nursing home residents who test positive for COVID-19 are moved to an isolated area of facilities, Matson said.

Meanwhile, nursing homes stopped allowing visitors last month in an effort to curtail the spread of the coronavirus.

“We really appreciate the patience and understanding that families have shown,” he said. 

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