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Sun Investigation

Coronavirus is ravaging Colorado nursing homes and other senior care centers again, killing hundreds more

Some facilities that experienced fatal outbreaks in the spring are again contending with resident infections and deaths. While officials say much has been learned about COVID-19, asymptomatic spread remains a hurdle.

Brookdale Parkplace in Denver, photographed on Sunday, Dec. 6, 2020. An outbreak at the facility that began in October has sickened five residents, killing one of them. An April outbreak there sickened as many as seven residents and killed as many as five. (Jesse Paul, The Colorado Sun)
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Nursing homes and other senior care centers in Colorado are being ravaged by the latest surge of coronavirus, a chilling repeat of the spring when thousands of residents were infected with the disease and hundreds died. 

Through Wednesday, nearly 200 active, ongoing outbreaks at such facilities in recent weeks had led to at least 3,300 infections and more than 300 deaths, according to a Colorado Sun analysis of Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment data. Thousands of staff members are catching the disease, too, and as many as three have died as a result of active outbreaks that have begun over the past three months.

COVID-19 IN COLORADO

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The situation is similar to what unfolded in Colorado in March, April and May, when COVID-19 first spread, mostly unchecked, for weeks through senior care centers as health officials struggled to understand the disease and how it is transmitted. Once again, coronavirus is not being stopped by regulations enacted by Gov. Jared Polis and his public health team in an effort to protect vulnerable people living in long-term care facilities, including testing regimens for staff and residents and limited visitation.

“They are helpful,” Doug Farmer, CEO of the Colorado Health Care Association and Center for Assisted Living, said of the protective policies put in place. “But none of those things alone — or even together — are a guarantee you can keep it all the way out.”

Since coronavirus reached Colorado early this year, nearly 1,400 residents of nursing homes and senior care centers have died from COVID-19. They represent about half of all the people in the state who have died after contracting the disease, the Sun’s analysis of CDPHE data shows. More than 7,000 residents have been infected.

MORE: See The Colorado Sun’s analysis of state health department data and a list of facilities dealing with outbreaks

Additionally, more than 5,700 nursing home workers have caught COVID-19 since the pandemic reached Colorado, and as many as 10 have died. 

Some senior care centers that contended with deadly outbreaks of coronavirus in the spring are now facing a second fatal bout with the disease. 

A coronavirus outbreak at Life Care Center of Longmont in April sickened as many as 13 residents and killed one. A second outbreak that began Oct. 22 has so far led to the infection of 77 residents, 18 of whom have died, according to the facility. In addition, 41 employees have caught the disease. 

Life Care Centers of America, which operates nursing homes across Colorado and the U.S., said the latest outbreak was traced to a certified nursing assistant who had COVID-19 but was asymptomatic

“It’s hard to defeat a bug you can’t see,” Staci Siefford, an infection prevention specialist at Life Care Center of Longmont, said in a written statement. 

Life Care Center of America says the Longmont facility has implemented a detailed daily screening of workers and a daily disinfectant protocol across the facility, and says staff now wear N95 masks and face shields. But, despite all of those steps, COVID-19 has found a way back in. 

“We are doing everything we can every day,” Kimberly Johnson, Life Care Center of Longmont’s director of nursing, said in a written statement. “It’s a difficult thing. Our staff are tired but diligent, and we’re beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel with the news of vaccines coming soon.”

Some facilities that experienced fatal outbreaks in the spring are again contending with resident infections and deaths.

The facility is not alone in facing the virus head on yet again.

MORE: “How did that happen so fast?”: She watched from afar as coronavirus killed her dad in a Colorado nursing home

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

In May, coronavirus sickened as many as 30 residents at the Autumn Heights Health Care Center in Denver, killing five of them. Another outbreak at the facility that began on Nov. 10 has so far left at least 57 residents ill, killing six, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. 

Vivage, the company that owns and operates Autumn Heights, did not respond to a request for comment.

The Winslow Court Retirement Community in Colorado Springs had nearly 30 residents catch COVID-19 in April, 11 of whom died. A new outbreak at the facility that began on Nov. 1 has so far sickened 21 residents and killed five.

Stellar Senior Living, the company that owns and operates Winslow Court, did not respond to a request for comment.

In all, more than 60 facilities with an active outbreak faced an earlier outbreak of coronavirus, The Sun found. 

Streets near Frasier Meadows, left, a campus of senior apartments and skilled nursing care in Boulder, are marked for the safety of older residents in the neighborhood. The facility had an outbreak in April and there’s another active one now that began on Nov. 9, according to CDPHE data. (Dana Coffield, The Colorado Sun)

An outbreak is defined by CDPHE as two people with COVID-19 not living in the same household who test positive within a two-week period. The outbreak is considered resolved 28 days after the onset of symptoms of the last case.

The resurgence of the disease in nursing homes and other senior care centers has coincided with a rise in COVID-19 cases across Colorado. Health officials say the disease is now more prevalent than ever and that about 1 in 40 Coloradans is actively contagious. 

“Outbreak in the general community equals outbreak in a residential care facility,” said Farmer, with the Colorado Health Care Association and Center for Assisted Living. “That is because even though the residents of the nursing home aren’t leaving the nursing home, and we aren’t having visitors come in, by and large, we do have a number of staff members who have to leave every day.”

Farmer said senior care centers have learned many lessons since the spring. One of those has been that asymptomatic spread is insidious and nearly impossible to control.

“We did learn a lot from the first go around,” Farmer said. “But one of the things we learned is there is a significant amount of asymptomatic spread. Even if you are doing a weekly testing regiment, if someone is asymptomatic and they get tested on Monday and they get a result on Wednesday or Thursday, that’s still three days they walk around that facility still doing that job.”


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