COVID clusters return to Colorado nursing homes, but fewer people are dying

Colorado has lost about two months’ worth of progress in getting COVID-19 out of nursing homes and assisted living facilities, but the virus may not take as many lives this time because most residents are vaccinated.

Sixty-two long-term care homes had outbreaks as of Wednesday, according to the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment — the highest total since June 16. And about two-thirds of the current outbreaks have been found in the last three weeks, as more Coloradans tested positive or were hospitalized for COVID-19.

Nursing homes and assisted living facilities have to declare an outbreak and do extra COVID-19 testing when they have two or more cases.

In the spring and fall 2020 waves, long-term care residents accounted for a disproportionate share of deaths, because the virus is most deadly to older people and those with chronic conditions.

But these current outbreaks aren’t as deadly as before: 402 people have tested positive, but only nine have died. The majority of nursing home residents have been vaccinated, which reduces their risk of severe illness and is likely limiting the death toll.

It’s also possible that because most of the outbreaks were found in the last month, the true toll will become clear later — most people who die of COVID-19 fight it for several weeks.

“That is quite different from what we saw last year, and that’s encouraging,” said Doug Farmer, president and CEO of the Colorado Health Care Association.

Vaccinated people can sometimes spread the delta variant of the virus, which accounts for nearly all COVID-19 infections in Colorado. The odds are lower, however, and experts think unvaccinated staff and visitors play a significant role in bringing the virus into nursing homes.

“The thing that really impacts whether we have outbreaks in our health care centers is the level of spread in the surrounding community,” Farmer said. “The more people get vaccinated, the faster this goes away.”

Where the other outbreaks are

Outbreaks also are increasing in restaurants, religious institutions and child care settings after falling from June through mid-July.

It’s difficult to know how the situation compares with earlier waves, however, because the state changed the rules in June about what constituted an outbreak.

Before then, an outbreak was two cases linked to the same location or event, regardless of the type of setting. Now, only long-term care and correctional facilities are considered to have an outbreak with two cases; other settings, like schools and businesses, need five.

As of Wednesday, the state reported the following numbers of outbreaks:

  • Child care centers: 14
  • Restaurants: 12
  • Religious institutions: 7
  • Prisons, jails and other correctional facilities: 4
  • Retail stores: 4

El Paso County had the most reported outbreaks, with 19 considered active as of Wednesday. Arapahoe and Mesa counties tied for second, with 15 each, while about half of counties reported none. That doesn’t mean the virus isn’t spreading there, though — communities where fewer people get tested and contact tracing is less successful may not find clusters.

So far, no new outbreaks have been reported in schools or universities, though a handful from spring haven’t been declared over — and students have just recently started returning to classrooms.

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