More than 2,000 COVID-19 cases in Ohio nursing homes; industry spokesman says that’s an undercount

By: - April 30, 2020 12:45 am

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The new coronavirus continues to ravage Ohio nursing homes and long-term care facilities, racking up at least 2,126 cumulative cases among residents and 872 among staff in two weeks, according to state data released Wednesday.

Gov. Mike DeWine is set to begin phasing out some of the shutdowns imposed in March to slow the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, on Friday.

A spokesman for Ohio’s nursing homes and care facilities said it’s inevitable case counts inside and outside nursing homes will rise as some of the public health orders are lifted.

“The real question is how much more is that going to be increased by opening things up,” said Peter Van Runkle, executive director of the Ohio Health Care Association, which represents more than 1,000 assisted living communities and similar businesses.

“So there is an element of a bargain there. I think the administration is trying to tilt the scales as much as they can to that bargain coming out with fewer lives lost. But no one really knows, no one can guarantee it.”

He estimated the numbers only represent about half of the total number of nursing home cases, though limited testing masks the full case count.

The state nursing home data only refers to cumulative cases since April 15. Statewide, about 75% of the 937 Ohioans who died from the virus occurred among people 70-years and older.

There are 1,511 “current” cases among residents and 584 among staff. At least 276 facility residents have died, per the state data. An Ohio Department of Health spokeswoman said the state does not have accurate information about nursing home cases pre-April 15.

Despite the likelihood of more viral spread in the nursing homes, Van Runkle said he supports the reopening. Even despite the lockdowns, the virus has penetrated nursing homes around the state.

What’s more important, he said, is increasing testing capacity and personal protective equipment availability, which is in short supply for the industry’s homecare sector and those caring for people with intellectual disabilities.

Dennis Propes, the Miami County health commissioner, oversaw the response to some of Ohio’s first reported nursing home and long-term care facility outbreaks at Koester Pavilion and Springmeade Health Center

State data shows there have been 138 total cases in Miami and 27 deaths. Propes estimated 75% of the cases trace back to the two facilities. 

“There are so many ways for that virus — it just takes a person who happens to be shedding that virus that one time for it to take a hold and spread through that place like wildfire,” he said.

Like Van Runkle, he said there needs to be more testing. Additionally, he said the state’s ability to conduct contact tracing is nowhere near where it needs to be to handle the incoming spike in new cases that could come with reopening.

He said he would “fully expect” an uptick in cases after the stay-at-home and other orders are lifted. While he supports a limited reopening (no mass gatherings, businesses reorganized to ensure social distancing, he emphasized how easily the virus can spread.

“You have to look at how many different routes there are for the virus to get into any facility, whether that be a nursing home, a jail or a prison, or anything,” he said. “You have all the employees going in and out. You have the vendors that are going out. You have the other professionals that go in and out, whether that be medical staff.”

Statewide, more than 17,000 Ohioans have confirmed and probable cases of COVID-19, 937 of whom have died. 

Nationally, more than one million Americans have confirmed cases, nearly 60,000 of whom have died, according to data accessed Wednesday afternoon from Johns Hopkins University. 

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Jake Zuckerman
Jake Zuckerman

Jake Zuckerman is a statehouse reporter. He spent three years chronicling the West Virginia Legislature for The Charleston Gazette-Mail after covering cops and courts for The Northern Virginia Daily.