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Suburban long-term care facilities brace for another 'COVID storm'

Alden Terrace of McHenry pictured in June 2010.
Alden Terrace of McHenry pictured in June 2010.

They were among the first – and certainly hardest – hit during the first wave of COVID-19 last spring, and long-term care facilities are once again battling the deadly virus as another surge grips the nation and Illinois.

Statewide, Illinois Department of Public Health records show 728 long-term care facilities have "open" outbreaks, or new cases reported within the past 28 days. That's up from 523 at such facilities in mid-August.

But while more locations are dealing with outbreaks now than in the summer, the number of cases in those facilities is lower than in the summer.

As of Friday, 18,517 COVID-19 cases were diagnosed in residents or workers of long-term care facilities within the previous 28 days, IDPH records show. That's down by more than 300 from what the state was reporting in the summer, when the virus wasn't nearly as widespread as it is today.

"It is very hard to keep any establishment COVID-free in the midst of a COVID storm," IDPH Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said Wednesday. "But I think we're doing a good job of keeping the numbers down. When we look specifically at deaths of the elderly ... for people over 60, one-third of those deaths are coming from long-term care, which means two-thirds are coming from the community."

In the suburbs, residents of long-term care facilities make up between 5% and 10% less of a county's death toll today than it did three months ago.

In Cook County, 2,481 of the 5,935 people who have died from the virus were long-term care facility residents, or roughly 42%, according to IDPH. DuPage County is reporting 485 of those who died were in long-term care facilities, more than 72% of the county's 674 COVID-19 total deaths. In August, more than 80% were residents of those kinds of facilities.

IDPH is reporting 343 of Lake County's 556 COVID-19 deaths were long-term care facility residents. That's 62% of all deaths.

In Kane County, 208 of the 394 COVID-19 deaths, or 53%, were people living in long-term care facilities. McHenry County officials are reporting 93 of the 127 COVID-19 deaths, 73%, were people living in congregate settings.

Will County officials are reporting just 46% of the county's COVID-19 deaths -- 225 of 491 -- were in long-term care facilities.

Testing is important because it helps keep asymptomatic carriers of the virus from infecting others, health experts have said.

"We're doing a lot more testing of everybody, but staff in particular," Gov. J.B. Pritzker said. "Back in the spring, we only had a limited number of tests and couldn't test every staff person on a regular basis. Now we do."

"We have seen early on in the pandemic how very bad it can be and the importance of testing in helping keep it from overtaking any facilities," said David Olsen, director of state affairs for the Alzheimer's Association Illinois Chapter. "I think we are doing better as a state and controlling the disease, and a lot of that is due to the amount of testing being done."

Olsen said state health officials reported that on average 12,000 COVID-19 tests a day come from long-term care facilities around the state.

Olsen's group was one of the first to praise Pritzker's decision Tuesday to issue a virus resurgence mitigation plan that significantly reduces business operations and limits social gathering throughout the state. The move, Olsen said, will help protect those living in congregate settings and their caregivers.

Among facilities with COVID-19 outbreaks, the number of cases can range from one or two to dozens.

In Cook County, IDPH is reporting 2,002 facilities have a combined 6,005 cases, which translates to an average of three cases per location.

In DuPage County, 66 facilities are handling 1,874 cases, which averages out to 28 cases per location.

In Kane County, 32 facilities have reported 548 cases for an average of 17 cases per location.

In Lake County, 37 facilities have combined for 757, an average of 20 cases per location.

In McHenry County, eight facilities recorded 126 cases over the past 28 days, which gives each location an average of 16 cases each.

In Will County, 27 facilities are dealing with 875 cases, which is an average of 32 cases per location.

Nationally, leaders in the nursing home industry are urging Congress to approve an aid package to help long-term care facilities maintain staffing and outfit workers with proper safety equipment. The American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living have released reports showing the virus is growing once again in congregate living centers throughout the country.

"Without adequate funding and resources, the U.S. is repeating the same mistakes made during the initial outbreak last spring and the major spike over the summer," said Mark Parkinson, president and CEO of the two organizations. "We need Congress to prioritize our vulnerable seniors and their caregivers in long-term care facilities, by passing another COVID relief package during the lame duck session on Congress."

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