Nursing homes account for 41% of state’s COVID-19 deaths

DPH says 247 at long-term-care facilities have died since epidemic began

TWO-FIFTHS OF THE COVID-19 deaths in the state have occurred at long-term care facilities for the elderly, according to information released by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health on Friday.

The agency said 247 people have died at nursing homes, rest homes, and skilled nursing facilities. The number represents 41 percent of the 599 statewide COVID-19 deaths to date and it’s a number that is likely to grow as expanded testing indicates a large number of residents at the facilities have the virus.

The state had never released the death toll at long-term care facilities until Friday. The data offered no breakdown by facility, but a spokesman for the Department of Public Health said the numbers should include close to 30 deaths at the state’s two soldiers’ homes in Holyoke and Chelsea.

According to the Friday report, 2,124 residents and workers scattered across 176 of the state’s roughly 1,000 facilities have tested positive for COVID-19. That number is up 30 percent from Thursday’s number, which was up 32 percent from Wednesday’s figure.

The positive cases at nursing homes represent 10 percent of the state’s total, but the virus is far more deadly at nursing homes because the population of those facilities tends to be older and more vulnerable.

The state lumps residents and employees together when it reports cases at the facilities. Even using the combined number of 2,124, the 247 deaths yield an 11.6 percent fatality rate among those who test positive. The fatality rate for the state as a whole is 2.7 percent.

Marylou Sudders, the governor’s secretary of health and human services, said on Tuesday that her office had numbers on deaths at nursing homes that she would make available that afternoon. But the information was not released until Friday. Sources in the nursing home industry say state officials began asking for the data more formally on Monday.

Nursing home officials are struggling to contain the virus. There have been reports that as many as 40 percent of the industry’s workers are out either because they have tested positive, they are quarantined, or they are simply afraid to show up at work. The officials say facilities are also struggling with a shortage of personal protection equipment and testing for the virus.

On Thursday, Sudders said she was ramping up testing at the state’s nursing homes, expanding a National Guard mobile testing team from 80 to 250 members, and encouraging nursing home staff to take their own samples from residents and submit them to labs for processing.

Tara Gregorio, president of the Massachusetts Senior Care Association, issued a statement extending condolences to the families of those residents who lost their lives. “The continuing rise in the number of fatal cases among the 38,000 frail elderly and disabled residents under our care is devastating to our residents, families, and staff who are courageously battling the most horrific pandemic in our lifetimes,” she said. “Together with the Commonwealth and hospital partners, we must redouble our efforts to support and protect our nursing home residents and staff in three very simple, actionable ways: 1) Expand routine COVID-19 testing to include both symptomatic and asymptomatic residents and frontline staff; 2) We must immediately protect our caregivers and thereby the residents they care for by ensuring that all frontline staff have the necessary personal protective equipment, including masks, gowns, eye shields, and gloves; and 3) We urgently need emergency funding to immediately pay a ‘hero’ wage to our frontline staff and hire an additional 12,000 workers to join us in fighting to protect our residents against this insidious and devastating virus.”

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Rich Bane, the president of BaneCare, which operates 11 nursing homes in Massachusetts, said in a story on this issue on Thursday that facilities have been underfunded for years because of inadequate state reimbursements and now find themselves battling a disease that is very difficult for the facilities to keep out. Bane said nursing homes provide hands-on, basic care to residents who often are unable to care for themselves. “What happens in senior care facilities and nursing homes is the exact opposite of social distancing,” he said. Bane said nursing homes and their staffs do everything they can to keep the coronavirus out of their facilities, but it’s a huge challenge. “It’s the contagion,” he said. “Once it’s in, it spreads like wildfire.”

The information on long-term care facility deaths was released on a day when the total number of deaths in the state jumped by 96 to 599 and the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases rose 2,033 to 20,974.