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Nursing Homes Hit Hard As Virus Claims Thousands Of Lives Across U.S.

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

At least 7,000 people in nursing homes across the country have died so far in this pandemic. The New York Times has been keeping count of those deaths. This week, we learned a New Jersey nursing home is being investigated after police discovered 17 bodies in an onsite morgue. One body had been put in an outdoor shed. Nearly every resident of a nursing home has health problems. And even in ordinary times, infections can be hard to control. We turn now to two reporters who've been investigating some of these outbreaks, Peggy Lowe with KCUR in Kansas City, and Blake Farmer with WPLN in Nashville. Thank you both very much for being with us.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Thank you.

PEGGY LOWE, BYLINE: My pleasure, Scott.

SIMON: Blake, let me start with you. You've been investigating an outbreak just outside of Nashville in Gallatin, Tenn. More than 20 residents of a nursing home died there. How did these outbreaks start?

FARMER: Well, you know, in the case of the Gallatin Center for Rehabilitation and Healing, we believe it started with one staff member testing positive. Of course, this started about a month ago. And at that time, nursing homes were even more guarded about letting anyone know they might have a problem. A Gallatin resident started having trouble breathing there at the nursing home. So staffers began calling 911 for ambulances to drive over and transport them to the hospital. Local officials have been pretty upset about this. They're sending their county's EMTs into that nursing home over and over without really knowing the extent of what's going on inside.

SIMON: What does the nursing home administrator say?

FARMER: Well, her name's Dawn Cochran. And she says she may have thought she had COVID contained but acknowledges now that she didn't.

DAWN COCHRAN: Once you get one sick patient, it's a tidal wave. You cannot stop it.

FARMER: Cochran told me that she did all she could - all that federal regulators were recommending, taking employees temperatures, wearing masks and gloves. But eventually, the National Guard came in and tested everyone - and turned out nearly 100 patients tested positive and 33 staffers, most with no symptoms.

SIMON: Kansas City - Peggy Lowe, you've been reporting on the outbreak at the Riverbend Post Acute Rehabilitation nursing home. More than 100 patients have tested positive. Nineteen people have died. It's now considered what's called fully COVID-19 positive. How does that happen?

LOWE: Well, it seems that just many bad things happened all at the same time to make Riverbend the largest cluster of cases in Kansas. Dr. Allen Greiner is the chief medical officer for the county, Wyandotte. He believes that a staff member brought in the virus at the end of March. That's when lots of residents were infected. But there were delays in testing thanks to shortages but also the need to send the tests from here in the Midwest to the coast. And then the virus moved so fast. And it also has a long incubation period. Also, as we all know in general in nursing homes, residents get lots of up-close personal care. You know, there are therapists and aides moving in and out of rooms, rotating among patients. Dr. Greiner called Riverbend a confluence of bad circumstances.

ALLEN GREINER: So it looks like there was sort of an explosion of positives. But it may have been that some of the initial testing they did was taking forever to come back. And then now, in the last five days, they're getting results back much quicker.

LOWE: Greiner says nursing homes know more now about how to respond. But the problem is that there aren't enough tests and equipment available to do it right.

SIMON: Peggy, with so many staff and patients sick, how do they keep the place running?

LOWE: Well, it's been very tough. Staff have been quitting at Riverbend. Many of them are just scared. One told me, I'm not going to risk my life for 12 bucks an hour. And they don't feel they have good communication from Riverbend officials about the outbreak or just enough protective gear. And now patients are being sent back to Riverbend from the hospital. One of them is 83. She tested positive for the virus, was sent to the hospital twice for brief visits. But she had to go back to Riverbend because she needs care because she has dementia. Her daughter Toni Gayle says once her mom recovers, she's going to try to get her out of there. Here she is.

TONI GAYLE: I just - I don't know. I just feel uncomfortable. You know, with all the information and stuff that I'm hearing, I just - I want her somewhere else.

SIMON: Blake, what are public health officials telling nursing homes?

FARMER: Well, the guidance from federal regulators has been evolving. No longer is it evacuating everyone, as they did in Gallatin. Now they're saying nursing homes should isolate all the COVID patients together, like, in a wing or a floor. They've even warned nursing homes that they may have to start doing more intensive care, like having patients on ventilators.

SIMON: And Peggy, it's reported that about 3,800 nursing homes and long-term care facilities have COVID-19 cases. But many have been able to contain them so far.

LOWE: Yes, some have. But everything has to go really, really right. So for instance, at a Kansas facility, just 4 miles away from Riverbend, a 70-year-old man got sick. He was hospitalized. He died. His autopsy showed that he had the coronavirus. Officials swept in, tested everyone regardless of symptoms. And ultimately, that home had just one case. Public officials said it really dodged a bullet there. So nursing homes need to have quick timing, lots of tests, loads of PPE like masks and gloves and a quick turnaround in getting the test results back. But many across the U.S. don't have the information and the supplies to keep these vulnerable nursing-home patients safe, at least not yet.

SIMON: Peggy Lowe of KCUR in Kansas City, Blake Farmer - WPLN in Nashville. Thank you both very much.

GREINER: Thank you.

FARMER: My pleasure, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.