By Max Blau and Andy Miller
Story updated with Gov. Kemp’s remarks
As Georgia braces for an expected surge in COVID-19 cases, long-term care providers face a crucial challenge of containing a potential disease spread among older and frail patients.
Five long-term care facilities in Georgia have so far reported the presence of the fast-spreading disease among their residents or employees – raising fears of a possible deadly outbreak among an especially vulnerable group of people.
One resident at Greenwood Place Marietta, an assisted-living community for seniors, has tested positive for COVID-19, Georgia Health News has learned. Another patient is being tested, while four more have symptoms of the disease.
Enlivant, the Chicago-based company that operates Greenwood Place Marietta, said Monday that the two patients who were tested lived in a unit that supports people with Alzheimer’s and dementia.
For three days, Enlivant said, the facility practiced social distancing as it waited for test results. It wasn’t until Sunday, when the test returned positive, that the company required staff and residents to wear protective gear, according to a company statement.
After the confirmed COVID-19 case, the company required staff and residents to wear protective gear, an Enlivant executive said. Since Sunday, four more residents, with coronavirus-like symptoms, have since been sent to a hospital. Enlivant said the company followed the guidelines issued by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“The safety and health of our employees and residents is our top priority,” Louis Kievit, Enlivant’s vice president of sales and customer engagement, said in response to GHN’s questions on the Greenwood Place situation. “We are coordinating with the Department of Public Health, as well as all other applicable local and state agencies and the Centers for Disease Control. Our team continues to monitor the situation and update procedures.”
Gov. Brian Kemp on Monday said that the state “is starting to see the impact of coronavirus on the medically fragile population, especially in long-term care facilities.”
Kemp added that needed medical supplies are being directed to long-term care facilities, as well as hospitals. He ordered people in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities to isolate, quarantine or shelter in place, along with other medically fragile individuals.
As Georgia now has reached 772 COVID-19 cases, at least five long-term care facilities have so far reported the presence of the fast-spreading disease among their residents or employees. The state Department of Public Health did not immediately respond to GHN’s request for information about the total number of confirmed coronavirus cases at long-term care facilities.
Residents at senior care facilities in Canton and Athens have tested positive, and were isolated in their rooms. And an employee of a nursing home in Eastman tested positive for COVID-19, forcing the facility into a lockdown.
Last week, a resident of the PruittHealth – Palmyra nursing home in Albany was confirmed to have died from COVID-19, according to the Dougherty County coroner. The Albany community has had several deaths from the disease.
“PruittHealth – Palmyra continues to operate at an Alert Code Red status and has been strictly following enhanced infection disease protocols, including increasing cleaning frequency, postponing communal activities, ceasing visitation, screening staff and patients daily, restricting staff to only essential personnel, and ceasing new admissions,” the company said in a statement. PruittHealth operates dozens of long-term care facilities in the state.
These incidents follow a string of COVID-19 outbreaks at nursing homes nationwide – including the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Wash., where roughly three dozen people have died.
The nursing home toll highlights the peril faced by both frontline health workers and residents at such long-term care facilities. The issue is compounded by the fact that people over 80 years old who are infected with COVID-19 face a 21.9 percent mortality rate, according to the World Health Organization.
A shortage of medical supplies and testing kits – factors that the CDC says enabled COVID-19 to spread in Kirkland – would hinder the ability of Georgia’s long-term facilities to limit the spread of disease. Hospitals across the state are also scrambling to obtain this gear.
A spokeswoman for the Georgia Health Care Association, a trade group representing long-term care facilities, said their members are reviewing their infection prevention protocols, and have restricted visits from family members, volunteers, and non-essential health care personnel. Beyond that, spokeswoman Devon Barill said, the GHCA has encouraged long-term care facilities to cancel large group activities, suspend communal dining, and screen residents for respiratory symptoms and fevers.
“[Health care providers] and essential visitors with symptoms of a respiratory infection should not be permitted to enter the facility at any time,” Barill told GHN.
Last week Gov. Brian Kemp urged family members to “remain patient” and refrain from visiting patients. “A temporary restriction on visitation is critical in the fight to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and ensure the health and safety of our state’s most vulnerable citizens,” he said in a statement.
Kievit, the Enlivant exec, said the company now has a “sufficient PPE supply on hand” for its facilities nationwide and will continue to use it moving forward.
Hospice also is having trouble getting personal protective equipment, according to an employee of a metro Atlanta hospice, who asked not to be identified due to fears of employer retaliation.
The employee said her company’s nurses not only have not had access to masks or gowns, but have faced challenges in getting COVID-19 tests if other employees have symptoms of COVID-19.
“They are being told just to stay home,” the employee told GHN. “But these are people who have had direct contact with frail elders and terminally ill patients. It’s like they don’t want to know how many people are infected.”
Max Blau is an Atlanta-based journalist who writes narrative and investigative stories, which have recently appeared in Atlanta magazine, The New York Times, and The Washington Post.