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Nursing homes continue to fight COVID-19 outbreaks despite safeguards

Five months after the pandemic began, a new Charlotte outbreak is a reminder that coronavirus continues to find its way into nursing homes.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Today marks two weeks since North Carolina started requiring nursing homes to regularly test employees for COVID, but the new mandate came as at least one Charlotte facility was already battling a new outbreak

"It's just been an awful experience," Pelican Health at Charlotte resident Undria Wilson said.

Wilson said she was one of the facility's early COVID cases this month. Between the time she spent in the hospital and more recently, back at the nursing home in a COVID-unit, she's grown more and more frustrated. The 53-year-old has lived at Pelican Health since suffering a stroke in 2017.

"Everybody's angry," she said. "I just don't think we're getting the best treatment here."

State records show the facility went from eight cases and one death on August 7 to 39 cases and two deaths just 11 days later, which is the equivalent of at least one out of every four residents testing positive. Six employees were infected as of August 17, according to state records, but the facility now reports two additional employee cases and 31 residents currently positive.

Wilson said an employee is suspected of bringing the infection into the facility.

"She was my CNA that night," Wilson said. "They need to screen the people that come in from agencies."

The whole situation has left her daughter, Angelica Wilson, feeling helpless and afraid, especially since someone they know died with COVID.

"I think that's where the precautions should have been more enforced with, just making sure, 'Hey do you have any temperature? Do any have any of these symptoms?'" she said. "With her getting COVID and then the family friend passing away, it definitely is a lot more real, because it's like, 'Okay, I know other people that are going through this,' but this is my immediate family, my mother of all people "

Her mother said she didn't find out she tested positive until she was already at the hospital.

The outbreak at Pelican Health is a reminder that even after all we've learned since March and all of the safeguards put in place, coronavirus continues to find a way into nursing homes and once inside, can run rampant.

RELATED: SC governor wants nursing home visits to resume soon

Pelican Health passed its most recent surprise inspection in May, but now joins more than 200 others across the state with outbreaks, according to state records. Those facilities combined account for almost half of North Carolina's COVID-19 deaths.

Mecklenburg County Health Director Gibbie Harris said the so-called congregate care facilities continue to be a challenge.

"We can always do more..." Harris recently said. "...Once you have COVID in an environment like that, it's hard to contain."

Pelican receives a federal rating of just a 1 out of 5, but the American Health Care Association touts research that shows a facility's history and rating don't dictate which facilities see outbreaks. Instead, researchers found it comes down to a facility's size and location.

In a statement, Pelican Health Charlotte Administrator Hayden Kezia cited the research and its recent inspection:

"Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, Pelican Health Charlotte has closely followed all guidelines from local, state and federal health officials to protect its residents and staff from COVID-19. This includes implementing strict infection control measures, ensuring adequate supplies of PPE are available, and testing all residents and staff members. A state inspection of our facility, focused specifically on infection control efforts, was conducted in late May and found no issues of concern. This demonstrates the responsible steps being taken by Pelican Health Charlotte. 

This virus is extremely contagious and can be easily spread by individuals who display no symptoms. Research from Harvard, Brown and the University of Chicago indicates that the single greatest factor that determines whether a nursing home has a COVID-19 outbreak is the prevalence of COVID-19 in the surrounding community. Data shows that it affects nursing facilities regardless of their quality ratings or profit status.

When testing of all Pelican Health Charlotte residents and staff members was conducted in late July, the results indicated 37 residents were positive. These residents and their families were immediately notified of the test results and the residents were quarantined to control the spread of the virus.

One of the most significant challenges facing nursing homes across North Carolina is the length of time it takes to receive COVID-19 test results. It often takes two or three days, and sometimes longer, before the facility receives test results. In some instances, a resident may be tested at our facility and later transferred to a hospital before the test results come back. In these situations, the hospital is immediately notified of the test results so they can inform the patient and their family.

Pelican Health Charlotte is dedicated to providing the best quality of life for the residents we serve. We continue taking precautions to protect our residents and staff, and we are committed to keeping family members well informed about the care of their loved ones."