BATON ROUGE, La. (AP) — As coronavirus cases spike ever higher in Louisiana, the state’s nursing homes, assisted living sites and adult residential care facilities are showing more and more “clusters” of the virus, but the full scale of the outbreak at those sites remains uncertain.
Louisiana’s Department of Health has identified 47 long-term care facilities that it considers a cluster, with at least two apparently related cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus. That number has increased steadily, as the coronavirus epidemic has grown across Louisiana.
The state reported Wednesday that 34 more Louisianans died from the virus, bringing the death toll to 273. The number of confirmed cases grew 23% overnight, topping 6,400, according to the latest figures. About 23% are hospitalized.
It’s difficult to determine whether nursing homes and retirement facilities represent an outsized share of the infected.
The state releases names of facilities where multiple virus cases have been found, about half of them in the virus hot-spot New Orleans area. But while it initially released statistics for such sites, the state has stopped doing so. In response to a public records request filed by The Associated Press, the health department refused to provide detailed data about the number of virus cases by long-term care facility, citing an exemption for public health studies.
Nursing homes often defer to the state.
“Because we have experienced some delays in receiving their confirmed reports, so we are reluctant to report numbers of cases that may not match their official reports,” Cynthia Maddox, spokeswoman for Notre Dame Health System, which operates three facilities with a total of about 420 resident as a ministry of the Archdiocese of New Orleans, said in an email.
Notre Dame opened an eight-bed isolation unit Tuesday in a former convent, but nobody has been admitted there, Maddox said.
“Any resident who shows any symptom is immediately isolated and no staff or other personnel who display symptoms are allowed into the building,” Maddox wrote. People stay in the unit at least until test results come back.
For most people, the coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. But for others, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, the highly contagious virus can cause severe symptoms like pneumonia and be fatal.
Dr. Alexander Billioux, assistant secretary of Louisiana’s Office of Public Health, said he didn’t know how many long-term care facility clusters included only two people — or how many were as big as that of Lambeth House, where 42 cases were identified before the state stopped releasing figures about cluster size.
Louisiana has enlisted help from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to respond to the nursing home and retirement facility outbreaks, and visitation has been restricted at long-term care facilities around the state. Louisiana’s state laboratory is doing all testing of staff and residents at long-term care facilities, Billioux said, “because it’s a pretty critical population to get results back fast.”
Beyond those facilities, testing results returning from the state lab, hospitals and commercial sites are growing, giving officials a better — but still incomplete — picture of the virus’s footprint statewide. Increased testing shows a trajectory that Gov. John Bel Edwards warns will have the New Orleans area running out of ventilators for the most fragile COVID-19 patients by Monday. Louisiana received a shipment of 150 ventilators Wednesday from the national stockpile.
Edwards eased medical licensing laws Tuesday to make it easier for out-of-state health care workers to come into Louisiana, and the Democratic governor repeated his plea for state residents to follow his “stay at home” order guidance.
The 47 facilities identified as cluster sites account for about 11% of the long-term care facilities in the state.
Louisiana’s first reported cluster was in a New Orleans retirement home, Lambeth House, where COVID-19 has killed 13 residents. Lambeth House ended group gatherings and meals, limited access among its facilities and barred all “non-essential visitors” when it was notified of the first diagnosis, spokesman Greg Beuerman said in an email.
Beuerman said it has been five days since anyone at Lambeth House has requested a COVID-19 test, and all independent living residents who tested positive for the disease had been declared virus-free Monday.
McConnaughey reported from New Orleans.
By MELINDA DESLATTE and JANET McCONNAUGHEY Associated Press