More than 30 residents and employees of a Bellingham nursing facility have tested positive for COVID-19, prompting officials to take steps to avoid a deadly scenario that played out in Kirkland.
On Saturday, three residents of the Shuksan Healthcare Center in Bellingham had tested positive for the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
By Sunday, after a spate test results came in, 26 residents and six employees were confirmed to have the illness, according to Whatcom Unified Command, a consortium of local governments coordinating the local response to COVID-19.
Infections tied to the nursing facility now represent a majority of the 48 confirmed cases of the illness in Whatcom County.
One of the county’s two deaths from COVID-19 is associated with Shuksan Healthcare Center. A man in his 80s was released from the nursing home 10 days before he died at home on March 20.
The situation has echoes of the outbreak at Life Care Center in Kirkland, which resulted in 37 deaths — a third of all COVID-19 deaths in Washington state.
On Monday, the federal Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services said its inspectors have cited the Kirkland facility for “immediate jeopardy,” or a situation in which residents are in immediate danger.
“Specifically, the facility failed to identify and manage sick residents, failed to notify the state health department and the state about sickness among residents, and failed to have a backup plan for when their staff doctor became sick,” said Seema Verma, Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services administrator.
Officials have warned that nursing facilities, where residents skew older and many have underlying health conditions, are particularly vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.
At least 146 nursing homes across 27 states have confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus, Verma said.
But Whatcom County officials said they were prepared, and have taken steps to prevent an outbreak as devastating as the one in Kirkland, where the virus spread undetected for weeks.
Bellingham Police Lt. Claudia Murphy, spokeswoman for Whatcom Unified Command, said the Kirkland outbreak gave Whatcom County officials “the ability to think several weeks ahead that something like that would happen in a skilled nursing facility in our county as well, rather than it being a complete shock or surprise.”
“It’s very sad Kirkland had to go through what they went through in order for another jurisdiction to foreshadow what would happen in their agency,” Murphy said.
After the first cases emerged last week, “all consenting residents” of Shuksan Healthcare Center were tested for COVID-19, Cindy Hollinsworth, a county health department official, said at a news conference Saturday.
Staff at the facility wear face masks at all times and, when caring for residents, wear gowns, gloves and eye protection as well, said Hollinsworth, the health department’s communicable disease and epidemiology manager.
Staff and residents are screened at least once a day for fever and respiratory symptoms, she said, adding that any staff who show signs of illness are sent home and any sick residents are isolated.
And, Hollinsworth said, leaders of the facility also have followed a March 16 proclamation by Gov. Jay Inslee barring visitors from nursing homes and assisted living facilities.
“Shuksan has fully implemented the precautions outlined by (the Department of Health) to prevent transmission in long-term care settings that have known COVID-19 cases,” Hollinsworth said.
Some infected staff members worked at more than one residential facility, and officials have been reaching out to the other employers to notify them, she said.