BFHD Collaborates with Long Term Care
Posted on 05/14/2020

Nearly one quarter of COVID-19 cases and almost 70% of COVID-related deaths in Benton and Franklin Counties have been linked to residents and staff of long term care and senior living (LTC) facilities. Since the first cases were identified, Health District staff have worked closely with dozens of LTC facilities to identify the sources of infection and take measures to limit the spread of the virus to our most vulnerable community members.

The term LTC encompasses several types of facilities including skilled nursing facilities (sometimes called nursing homes), assisted living, independent living, memory care, adult family homes, home health agencies, and hospice. Advanced age, underlying health conditions, and living conditions with close contact between residents and staff combine to put this population at very high risk. To complicate matters, people with the virus are contagious for up to 48 hours before they experience symptoms and many people who test positive don’t experience any symptoms at all. All of these factors create a perfect storm for high infection rates and poor outcomes.

Of the current 296 cases reported in LTC, 178 are residents and 118 are staff members. Several local facilities have voluntarily tested all residents and staff with specimen collection supplies provided by Benton-Franklin Health District (BFHD). Both the federal government and Governor Inslee have directed skilled nursing facilities to test all residents and staff in the next two weeks.

Benton-Franklin Health District (BFHD) staff have conducted site visits, held weekly conference calls, answered hundreds of questions, and provided guidance on infection control measures to LTC management and their employees. This includes guidance on everything from the appropriate and correct use of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, gowns, and gloves, to best practices for screening of healthcare workers for illness. We helped them obtain PPE for their staff and residents. Facilities were also coached on separating the sick from the well, a strategy known as cohorting.

The first positive COVID-19 case in Benton and Franklin Counties was reported on March 17. By May 1, 250 LTC residents and staff had tested positive for the virus. Forty-six more cases have been reported thus far in May. This downward trend suggests that a public health response in partnership with LTC facilities can have a large impact in reducing the spread of illness. At least 11 local LTC facilities that previously had one or more positive cases have not had a positive case reported in May.

To reduce the risk of what could potentially be an even more deadly second wave in these facilities, everyone in our community – inside and outside of these facilities – will need to continue to make short term sacrifices for longer term gain. Families will need to continue to support their loved ones in facilities without being able to see them in person, and all of us out in the community will continue to do our part by staying home as much as possible.

As Washington begins a phased approach to recovery  and we begin to increase our activities in the community, the risk for COVID-19 transmission will increase. During this time, we must keep a vigilant watch on the health of long-term care facilities. Containing the virus for the entire community and all generations will not be possible if the fires in these facilities keep burning.

Adapted in part from "Protecting Residents in Long-Term Care Facilities -- Progress and Challenges" by Seattle-King County Public Health