BELLINGHAM – The vast majority of nearly 100 workers at Shuksan Healthcare, a skilled-nursing facility at the center of a concentrated outbreak of COVID-19 illness, are not likely to be tested for the virus, and those without symptoms are under no quarantine restrictions, Whatcom County Health officials said Monday.
Likewise, the ongoing lack of test supplies makes it unlikely any “proactive” testing of residents of other nearby nursing facilities will be conducted in the near future, local health officials said. Nine skilled-nursing facilities operate in Whatcom County, in addition to a large number of assisted-living facilities and other senior residences.
In recent days, more than three-quarters of the facility’s patients have tested positive, and one has died. The infections are of particular concern because nationally, 80% of COVID fatalities have been in adults aged 65 or over, likely because human immune systems weaken with age.
As county officials scrambled to contain the outbreak, the local Unified Command agency in charge of the COVID-19 outbreak said all of Shuksan’s 98 workers, ranging from nurses and full-time caregivers to housekeeping and food service employees, have been restricted from working at other health care facilities.
Only seven employees were screened during an initial round of testing late last week, which resulted in 32 positive results for patients and staff, health officials said. The five staff members and two contract employees tested were chosen because they exhibited respiratory symptoms, and all were barred from further work at that time.
Since then, all Shuksan workers have been barred from working at other health care facilities, but are not under other restrictions, health officials said.
Some of the facility’s employees also might have been tested on their own through their health providers, officials said.
“While there are no plans at this time to test further employees, we are prioritizing testing for any health care workers who show symptoms,” the Unified Command said.
Health officials were scrambling Monday to contain the outbreak, first revealed via three positive tests on Friday, followed by an additional 29 residents and employees with positive tests on Sunday. Twenty-six of the 32 who have tested positive are residents, six are facility workers.
The facility has 38 current residents, some in shared rooms, Shuksan Healthcare spokesman David Kiefer said. Whatcom County Health officials have said all remaining residents will remain in place at the facility.
The outbreak has claimed one victim: A former resident, a man in his 80s who had been released March 10, died at his home Friday, and has now been linked to the Shuksan outbreak, health officials said.
Residents at the facility, in Bellingham’s York neighborhood, are being isolated and treated only by workers wearing protective equipment, health officials said. Because the center’s kitchen has been closed, meals began to be delivered Monday from PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center.
Shuksan officials said in a statement that they had notified family members and residents who had stayed at the facility in the past 14 days about the positive tests. Home health care agencies, assisted living facilities and other health clinics that might have been used by Shuksan residents also have been alerted, they said.
Concerns grew, meanwhile, about the safety of other residents of nursing facilities, assisted-living facilities, or retirement homes in the county.
Seniors with underlying serious health conditions have proven particularly vulnerable to the virus. The nation’s first substantial number of fatal cases came from Life Care Center in Kirkland, where 82 residents tested positive for the COVID illness, and 35 have died.
In that case, federal regulators have noted that the center failed to quickly respond, placing residents in imminent danger.
As of Monday, no other Whatcom County senior-care facility or residence had substantial numbers of positive tests. But generally, only residents and staff exhibiting symptoms have been tested, health officials acknowledged.
“We are not able to proactively test at skilled nursing facilities” due to the continuing limited availability of tests, Whatcom Unified Command said.
The trigger for testing all residents at Shuksan, officials said, was the initial cluster of three positive tests, ordered for symptomatic patients. One resident of a Lynden assisted-living facility also has tested positive.
Health officials were braced for a broader spread in similar facilities.
“I would say given the community spread that we know is out there, and looking at our partners in King and Snohomish, that it is highly likely that we will see more cases in our facilities,” Cindy Hollinsworth, communicable disease and epidemiology manager for Whatcom Health, said at a Saturday news conference.
“The staff are going home to their families and friends,” she said. “This reinforces that we need to keep our circles very small.”
Shuksan workers had been in compliance with restrictions on social interaction imposed on nursing facilities by Gov. Jay Inslee on March 16, Hollinsworth said. Those included strict bans on visitors, screening of residents and staff members for symptoms, isolation measures and increased facility cleaning and decontamination.
“All of our [Whatcom County] retirement-type facilities have put in restrictions,” Hollinsworth said, adding that staff are “very used to confining residents to combat disease spreads, such as norovirus and flu. This is something they are very good at doing.”
The county as of Monday afternoon had recorded 48 positive and 319 negative COVID tests. An additional five positive tests have been reported by the Lummi Nation, north of Bellingham.
Staff reporter Asia Fields contributed to this report.