Polk County cites ‘alarming’ threat to seniors from COVID-19

By: - July 1, 2020 8:00 am

In response to a formal open-records complaint, the Iowa Department of Public Health is continuing to withhold data regarding COVID-19 outbreaks in Iowa nursing homes. (Photo by Clark Kauffman/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

Citing an “alarming” 20% increase in COVID-19 infections within central Iowa, Polk County health officials and advocates for the elderly say the state’s nursing home residents are at serious risk.

The warning coincides with reports of Iowa nursing homes failing to properly screen their workers for the virus, with dozens of residents becoming infected and dying.

Last week, the Iowa Capital Dispatch reported 51 residents and staff at a Dubuque nursing home tested positive for COVID, and 11 residents died, after three workers with symptoms of COVID-19 were allowed to work in the home. The three workers later tested positive for the virus.

This week, the Associated Press reported that 79 residents and staff members at an Oskaloosa nursing home tested positive for COVID-19, and 15 residents died. One worker at the home, who later tested positive for the virus, had been allowed to “self screen” before working shifts in the building.

Those incidents have prompted John Hale, an advocate for the elderly, to ask Iowans to call the office of Gov. Kim Reynolds and register their concern.

“Our elected leaders haven’t seen the light, so it’s time for them to feel some heat,” Hale wrote in a blog post Tuesday. “We ask you to think of the illnesses, injuries and deaths as if they happened not to strangers, but to your friends and family.”

Also on Tuesday, the Polk County Health Department issued a written statement that pointed to a recent increase in COVID-19 hospitalizations nationally, with 40,000 new infections confirmed in just the past two days.

“Central Iowa is now following the same trend,” the county health department stated. “Over the past seven days, our positive COVID-19 cases are on the rise again. Since the beginning of June, Polk County has been averaging around 50 to 55 cases a day. The seven-day trend has shown an increase of 20% of new cases reported in central Iowa.”

According to the Iowa Department of Public Health, there currently are 20 active COVID-19 outbreaks in Iowa nursing homes.

The department does not publish a running, cumulative total of outbreaks in Iowa’s nursing homes, making it difficult to identify trends. However, media reports indicate there were outbreaks at 37 long-term care facilities as of June 11.

Also, the department isn’t reporting outbreaks in assisted-living centers, which are not as tightly regulated as skilled-nursing facilities but are home to thousands of elderly Iowans living in high-risk, congregate settings.

In addition, the state isn’t reporting the names of nursing homes where major outbreaks have been confirmed and then brought under control.

So, for example, in May, the state was reporting that Heritage Specialty Care in Cedar Rapids was home to 113 infected residents or workers, and the Bishop Drumm Retirement Center in Johnston had 95 infections.

Neither of those homes appear on the state’s current list of long-term care sites with confirmed outbreaks.

So far, the department says, there have been at least 365 COVID-19 deaths in Iowa nursing homes.

Among the hardest hit homes in central Iowa, currently:

  • Trinity Center at Luther Park in Des Moines: 97 infections
  • University Park Nursing and Rehabilitation Center: 69 infections
  • Granger Nursing and Rehabilitation: 57 infections
  • Arbor Springs of West Des Moines: 37 infections

Recently, AARP of Iowa called on state officials to impose immediate, mandatory testing in all of the state’s nursing home and assisted living facilities. Reynolds has not publicly responded to the demand, but stated that her administration has “worked extensively” with the nursing home industry to provide the facilities with guidance, training and equipment.

The Polk County Health Department says the growing number of infections in central Iowa poses a serious threat to older individuals, a demographic known to be at an increased risk for severe illness and death once infected with the virus.

“Polk County data shows a decrease of cases and hospitalizations for individuals living in long term care settings as of right now,” the department said. “We are very concerned that without taking proper precautions our cases, hospitalizations and deaths in long term care settings will increase.

The county is asking all long-term care centers to continue taking every precaution to keep older Iowans safe. Among the steps that are recommended: bans on visitation, except for compassionate-care situations; restricted entry of all non-essential health care personnel; limits on communal dining; and avoidance of non-medically necessary trips outside the building.

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Clark Kauffman
Clark Kauffman

Deputy Editor Clark Kauffman has worked during the past 30 years as both an investigative reporter and editorial writer at two of Iowa’s largest newspapers, the Des Moines Register and the Quad-City Times. He has won numerous state and national awards for reporting and editorial writing. His 2004 series on prosecutorial misconduct in Iowa was named a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. From October 2018 through November 2019, Kauffman was an assistant ombudsman for the Iowa Office of Ombudsman, an agency that investigates citizens’ complaints of wrongdoing within state and local government agencies.

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