On Halloween weekend, McKay Healthcare & Rehab in Grant County faced a two-pronged crisis: 24 out of the Soap Lake long-term care facility’s 31 residents had tested positive for COVID-19, and so had the bulk of its staff.
As residents who tested positive were temporarily transferred to another facility, just three nurses, including the facility director, were left to care for those who remained.
“I have a hard time comprehending now that we were in such dire straits,” said Erica Gaertner, the facility’s director, who later tested positive for the virus, too. “My concern was that if any of the three nurses, or, heaven forbid, we all test positive, we would have no nursing staff. There was no help.”
Washington state officials are hoping to prevent that type of crisis with a plan to deploy temporary teams of registered nurses and other health care workers to long-term care facilities across the state with staffing shortages. Six “rapid response” teams will work at assisted-living facilities, nursing homes and other long-term care providers where staff members have tested positive for COVID-19 or are in quarantine because exposure to the virus, the state Department of Social and Health Services (DSHS) announced Thursday.
The announcement of the monthlong effort comes as virus cases in long-term care facilities surge. In the past two weeks, the number of facilities with at least one active case of COVID-19 has increased by nearly 100, and senior-care industry advocates are calling for more resources for residents and workers.
As of Thursday, 431 long-term facilities have reported at least one COVID-19 infection, including 134 nursing homes and 138 assisted-living. That’s a huge increase from previous pandemic peaks in March and August, when about 280 long-term care facilities reported infections each of those months.
Health experts say that many outbreaks are attributed to spread in the community. In Snohomish County, for example, officials said a large outbreak at Josephine Caring Community, which also had an outbreak in the spring, was likely caused by new cases increasing across the county. As case counts rise, the virus is likely to make its way into long-term care facilities, where infections have proven especially deadly.
The six teams, with a total of 48 registered nurses, licensed practical nurses and certified nursing assistants hired through temporary staffing agencies, will go to facilities in counties with the highest virus rates.
Those counties are King, Pierce, Snohomish, Clark, Yakima and Spokane, but teams could go to the locations if the data changes, according to DSHS. Four facilities, thus far, have applied for temporary help.
Care facilities, especially nursing homes, have long struggled with staffing as workers dealt with poor wages, difficult working environments and high turnover. The COVID-19 pandemic further aggravated these issues as facilities went into lockdown and workers found themselves taking on even more tasks, like delivering meals or setting up communication with residents’ loved ones — even as they faced greater risk of acquiring COVID-19 themselves.
Robin Dale, president and CEO of the Washington Healthcare Association, described staffing shortages as the most pressing issues among other concerns about having enough testing kits and personal protective equipment.
“If we have too many health care workers getting sick or even exposed, and having to isolate, who is going to take care of our patients?” he said. “If that happens, all bets are off.”
Leaders of industry groups commended the state for moving quickly to come up with the rapid-response teams, but they noted that the teams aren’t a fix for the ongoing need for adequate staffing. Adam Glickman, the secretary-treasurer of SEIU 775, which represents long-term care workers, said the shortages call for paying workers higher wages and affordable health benefits.
“This plan helps overstressed nursing home workers who are covering for sick co-workers in the short term and that’s great and necessary,” Glickman said in an email. “But we should be clear that this is a bandage to stop the bleeding, and doesn’t address the underlying problem which is ongoing dramatic underfunding of our state’s nursing homes.”
Along with rapid-response teams, Washington’s long-term care facilities could see additional relief as soon as later this month, as a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advisory group has decided that residents of the facilities should get the first doses of the coronavirus vaccine, along with health care workers. The decisions will help guide Washington’s plan for how to allocate its first doses.