Aging Well

Aging Well

A deeper look at the number of deaths in nursing homes and residential care communities

Posted May 29, 2020 2:15 p.m. EDT

According to the New York Times last week, one-third of deaths across the country due to coronavirus have happened in nursing homes and residential care communities.

In North Carolina, the percentage is higher. Half of all deaths have occurred in nursing homes; if you also add in residential care communities, like Assisted Living and Memory Care, that number increases to 57%.

Does it follow then that it is a death sentence to even consider putting a loved one in a residential care community when these communities begin considering new admissions? Many have not allowed new admissions since March, when Executive Order 121 went into effect. However, as testing becomes more available and reliable, communities are beginning to develop plans for how to safely enable new residents to move in while protecting existing residents from an increased risk of exposure.

Let’s step back and look at the numbers more carefully.

North Carolina, with 868 deaths due to COVID-19 as of May 29, 2020, is 19th in the nation in terms of total deaths. 436 of these occurred in nursing homes and 61 in residential care communities.

Does that mean that all nursing homes have experienced infections and deaths? No. Out of the 429 nursing homes in North Carolina, 91 have had at least one case of COVID among staff or residents and 22 of these 91 have experienced at least one death. In other words, five percent of the total 429 nursing homes in North Carolina have experienced a death due to COVID. And yes, each death is a devastating tragedy and loss. I’m not saying that that is not important; what I am saying is that if you are a family member with someone in a nursing home or considering sending a loved one to one whose care you simply cannot manage at home any longer, it may be useful to have a clearer idea of the risk. Emotion, fueled by distressing headlines, can cloud wiser decision-making. The most recent numbers can be viewed on the NC Department of Health and Human Services website, which is updated every Tuesday and Friday.

If we look to the over 1,200 residential care communities that operate in North Carolina, according to DHHS numbers, 29 have experienced at least one case. Of these, 16 have experienced at least one death due to COVID. That translates to one percent of 1,200+ residential care communities across the state that have experienced a death due to COVID. One percent is not insignificant, but perhaps it is less than what one might assume when reading the headlines.

No family I know does not agonize over whether or when to place a loved one who they cannot care for anymore safely at home into Assisted Living, Memory Care or Nursing Care. Coronavirus has added another layer to the already fraught decision-making process. There is simply no easy answer. But perhaps, having a deeper understanding of the numbers and true risk can be of use as we approach a loosening of restrictions in terms of new admissions... at least for some families where the need for help is greatest.

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