New COVID-19 cases in North Carolina long-term care facilities have declined rapidly in the last several weeks. Case rates are down over 15-fold in skilled nursing facilities, adult care homes, and other licensed facilities since the peak of transmission in January 2021. Given the rapid decline in new cases, most facilities currently meet criteria to resume indoor visitation while continuing to follow infection prevention recommendations.
“We have been and continue to implement several safety procedures throughout the COVID pandemic,” said Hannah Strum with Grandview Manor Care Center. “Some of these precautions include in-depth screenings of all staff and visitors prior to entrance into our building, required mask-wearing, and symptom monitoring throughout the time in our facility. In addition, we continue to implement sanitation standards using top-notch disinfectants and our electrostatic sprayer.”
The rapid declines in case numbers can be attributed to early vaccination prioritization for residents and staff of long-term care facilities and decreasing community transmission. More than 205,000 vaccines have been administered to long-term care staff and residents, and vaccinations through the federal long-term care partnership for COVID-19 vaccinations will continue into March.
“Protecting our residents and staff in long-term care has been a top priority in our pandemic response efforts and seeing cases decrease in these settings is heartening,” said NC Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Mandy K. Cohen, M.D. “I know it has a been a long, difficult year for residents and families, but those measures saved lives and are now allowing us to resume safe, indoor visitation. While we need to continue infection prevention practices, this decrease is also a positive sign of the impact vaccinations have in our communities.”
The declining number of cases in long-term care settings means many facilities can resume indoor visitation. While facilities may conduct visits at any time for residents with compassionate care needs, federal and state guidelines have additional criteria for facilities to resume indoor visitation, which include following infection prevention practices and having no new cases of COVID-19 in the last 14 days. Medicare certified skilled-nursing facilities must meet additional criteria required by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
“Although the vaccine has been widely distributed within our community, and the cases in our industry have declined, we continue to implement a high level of precautions and safety standards,” said Strum. “In addition to all of our previous precautions, we encourage everyone within our community to be vaccinated as they are eligible. We are requiring testing of anyone who has not been vaccinated, or who may have symptoms, prior to entry into our facility.”
Since the start of the pandemic, NCDHHS’s response has focused on a five-point strategy for long-term care facilities including prevention, staffing, testing, outbreak management and oversight. The state has created regional infection prevention teams to support facilities; provided personal protective equipment; helped fill staffing shortages; provided infection prevention and control training, provided targeted funding; mandated testing; and completed on-site infection control inspections of North Carolina’s more than 400 nursing homes.
“We may see a light at the end of the tunnel, but we aren’t letting our guards down just yet,” said Strum.
To continue to reduce community transmission of COVID-19, North Carolinians should continue to practice the three Ws — Wait, Wear Wash — and, when they become eligible for the vaccine, get vaccinated.