Deaths linked to long-term care more prevalent in region than nation

Local Coronavirus Coverage

46 percent of region’s deaths linked to outbreaks — national rate 40 percent, Tennessee’s 28

JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – More than 46 percent of reported COVID-19 deaths in the 15-county News Channel 11 viewing area are linked to long-term care facility outbreaks — a figure higher than the national and Tennessee numbers.

Nearly 1,200 residents and nearly 800 staff in Northeast Tennessee’s counties have tested positive for COVID through Nov. 20, according to weekly data from the Tennessee Department of Health (TDH).

Resident deaths totaled 160 as of Nov. 20, which was 42 percent of the region’s 377. Overall, Tennessee’s 1,195 long-term care deaths represented 28 percent of the state’s total.

Nationally, Kaiser Health News (KHN) reported that deaths related to long-term care surpassed 100,000 Tuesday. KHN’s report said those deaths represent right about 40 percent of the nation’s total. — a proportion the outlet said has been remarkably steady through the entire pandemic.

In Southwest Virginia, at least 54 percent of deaths — 80 out of 147 — were linked to long-term care outbreaks as of Monday. The Virginia Department of Health (VDH) uses an asterisk to denote death totals between 1 and 4, so the number could be as high as 92.

A recent spate of deaths linked to a Heritage Hall facility in Big Stone Gap drove Virginia’s numbers up last week. Chelsea East is a spokesperson for American Health Care, which operates Heritage Hall, and provided a statement last week:

“Resident safety is always our top priority. We are doing everything we can to ensure we stop the spread of COVID-19 within our facilities by working closely with our local health departments as well as following our stringent company COVID-19 protocols. We are so proud of our dedicated front line staff who continues to battle this pandemic day in and day out, they are our true heroes. Heritage Hall is grateful for the tremendous outpouring of support from our local communities and family members during this difficult time.”

Using the latest long-term care totals available for each state, 240 deaths were linked to long-term care at a point when 284 were from other sources.

News Channel 11 has tracked the devastating impact COVID is having on long-term care facilities since mid-August. One administrator of a nursing home that has now seen 13 deaths described life in the facilities as “like a war” at that time.

“The only way I can describe it is like a war,” Chuck Arnold of The Waters Johnson City said in a late August interview. “You’ve got staff in here working 16-hour shifts, just doing everything you can for the residents.”

The Waters had reported four deaths at the time.

“Many of our staff worked long hours and extra shifts to cover for their co-workers while they were out from the virus,” Arnold said. “Then people would recover and come back and do the same for others. I’m really proud of our staff, they really stepped up.”

A steady rise in cases and deaths

When Arnold spoke, Northeast Tennessee was near the end of a week that saw resident cases (many of which ended in recovery) increase from 323 to 419 in the Aug. 28 report.

New cases in Northeast Tennessee long-term care facilities resumed a steep climb in mid-October.

Those numbers kept rising by an average of 85 through the week ending Sept. 11, and then the trend leveled. The following five weeks saw just 138 total cases recorded — fewer than 28 per week on average.

But the trend roared back in mid-October and it hasn’t let up. The past five weeks have seen 461 new resident cases, an average of 92 a week.

And last week 76 new staff cases was a one-week high.

Health officials, including Mt. Rogers Health District (Virginia) Director Dr. Karen Shelton, have repeatedly told News Channel 11 the main culprit is community spread.

“You can do all the things to try to keep it out of your facility but when there become so many cases in the community, the health care employees are affected also just being in the community,” Shelton said last month.

She said the nature of the virus makes it extremely difficult to prevent it from getting into nursing homes once community spread reaches a certain level.

“It can come in silently, asymptomatic,” Shelton said. “Not everyone who gets it is sick.

“We do unfortunately see our worst outcomes when we get COVID into a facility, and unfortunately it is generally recognized late because it can come in and then spread and overtake more than half the facility before you even know it’s there.”

Hard to get out once it’s in

Some facilities — The Waters among them — have experienced a fairly quick wave of cases and deaths followed by an end to their outbreaks.

After holding steady for weeks, cases at Wexford House in Kingsport spiked last week.

Others, though, have had relatively low case numbers that seem to be under control — until they’re not.

NHC Healthcare in Johnson City provides one example. When News Channel 11 began reporting on Tennessee’s outbreaks after the Aug. 21 data release, the 139-bed center had seven resident cases and 11 staff cases, with no deaths.

Over the next six weeks those numbers rose, but they didn’t skyrocket. By Oct. 16 the facility had had 33 resident cases, 22 staff cases and three resident deaths and those numbers were the same as the prior week.

A week later, though, the facility reported 74 resident cases and 44 staff cases, as well as seven deaths — increases of 41 resident and 22 staff cases and four deaths.

Total resident cases jumped to 93 Nov. 6. Then the Nov. 13 report included 14 new deaths, for a total of 21, and 20 more resident cases for a total of 64.

Numerous facilities have followed similar patterns.

The 21 deaths recorded at NHC Johnson City are the fourth-highest total of any Tennessee outbreak. Signature Health of Greeneville’s 20 deaths are tied for the fifth-highest.

Of 32 facilities in Tennessee that have recorded at least 10 deaths since the beginning of the pandemic, eight of them are in Northeast Tennessee.

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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