As health officials feared, coronavirus outbreak invading nursing homes

(WASHINGTON) — The coronavirus outbreak raced through four nursing homes over the weekend, infecting hundreds of residents at senior living facilities and killing at least five people.

At a press conference Monday, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan called the outbreak in one senior home north of Baltimore “deeply concerning,” as the virus leaves a mounting toll at facilities around the country. At the 104-bed facility in Mt. Airy, Maryland, 66 residents tested positive, 11 have been hospitalized, and one elderly man died from the illness.

“As we have been warning for weeks, older Marylanders and those with underlying health conditions are more vulnerable and at a significantly higher risk of contracting this disease,” Hogan said in a statement. “Multiple state agencies are on the scene and working closely with the local health department and the facility as they take urgent steps to protect additional residents and staff who may have been exposed.”

Advocates for nursing home safety and the companies that run large national chains have been warning of the potential for the highly-contagious virus to wreak havoc on senior living communities – where vulnerable residents live in close quarters and containment options are limited. Most facilities instituted visitation bans weeks ago, and some designated isolation areas in hopes of halting a rapid spread.

But this weekend showed just how dangerous and lethal COVID-19 could be inside a nursing home. At Gallatin Center for Rehabilitation outside of Nashville, Tennessee, 115 residents tested positive for the illness and two died, according to local officials.

At the Canterbury Rehabilitation & Healthcare Center in Richmond, Virginia, 18 additional residents tested positive for COVID-19, bringing the facility’s total to 37 residents and six healthcare workers. Two residents died on Friday.

And at the Sundale Nursing Home in Morgantown, West Virginia, several residents began experiencing fevers on Sunday, March 22. By the following day, the national guard was mobilized to help test for the cause. They found 21 residents and eight employees tested positive for COVID-19, out of the 98 people who live there.

West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice told reporters the outbreak there “is the horror story that we absolutely didn’t want to have happen, at least from a nursing-home standpoint, because that’s a place, you know, that our elderly are at for sure.”

Nursing homes have been a source of deep concern from the first signs the virus had reached the U.S., when a senior center in Washington State saw a spree of infections, that have since lead to 35 deaths.

National figures have been more difficult to track. As of last week, at least 147 nursing homes across 27 states had at least one resident with COVID-19, according to the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid services. But the agency, which regulates nursing homes, has not responded to requests from ABC News for updated figures.

Because nursing homes are being overrun quickly, they are also putting stress on first responders – who have in several instances been called upon to move large numbers of ailing residents. Last week, officials in New Jersey evacuated the St. Joseph’s Senior Home in the town of Woodbridge, after all 94 patients there were presumed positive for the infection.

On Saturday, Tennessee officials took the same drastic step at the Gallatin Center. The National Guard was called to move all of the residents there to a nearby hospital, and Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee ordered the facility temporarily closed for cleaning and disinfecting and sent staff members into quarantine.

Those working at nursing homes said the cases have been frightening to residents and wrenching to relatives who have not been permitted inside to visit their loved ones. Donna Tennant, the Marketing Director at Sundale in West Virginia said they are trying their best to protect those residents still on site – the ones who did not require hospitalization.

“We’re just trying to keep things isolated so we don’t continue to spread it,” Tennant said.

Residents are remaining connected to their family members through cell phones and video chats, Tennant said, and hospice workers who are currently unable to enter the facility to work with residents have hoisted up a sign just outside that reads “Love and Hope” in bright pink letters.

“You pull up and you see that sign and think ‘You know, thank you, there is good in the world,’” Tennant said.

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