Half of Philly Nursing Home Patients Had COVID-19 This Year, City Estimates

Philly's health department believes previously infected nursing home patients can resist a second wave of infection. Assisted living residents and their caretakers will likely receive a vaccine first.

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Philly is preparing nursing homes for a second wave of the coronavirus and taking steps to prevent further spread, officials said Tuesday. While announcing new plans that will hopefully prevent large outbreaks, the city also revealed a new detail showing just how widespread the epidemic was in nursing homes this spring.

"Overall, we estimate that half of the nursing home residents in the city have likely had the infection already" this year, Health Commissioner Dr. Thomas Farley said.

He said nursing homes were hit hard in the first wave of the epidemic and account for about half of the 1,830 coronavirus deaths in Philly since March. Across the region, the virus spread in congregate care facilities including to the staff.

People previously infected will have antibodies to the virus that could protect them from becoming re-infected, Farley said.

“That’s good for them, of course we need to protect others if we do have a second wave and if we start to see more virus spread in nursing homes.”

Besides the nursing home patients who made it through the spring without contracting the coronavirus, a recent study chronicled one 25-year-old male Nevada patient who contracted the virus twice.

New precautions

This fall and winter, more precautions will be taken. The city is planning an alternate care site where nursing homes can send some residents who test positive for COVID-19, according to Dr. Farley.

That facility won't be for every patient; priority will be given to patients from nursing homes that do not have separate wings where COVID-positive and negative residents could be kept apart.

“They can be cared for in a place where they’re not likely to spread the infection onto others," Farley said. "This would not be for every COVID-positive nursing home resident, but for those residents in nursing homes that can’t care for them in a way that would prevent the spread to other residents.”

And three local universities will also help the city and nursing homes combat the virus at nursing homes, Farley said. Thomas Jefferson University, University of Pennsylvania and Temple University will help nursing home staff with infection control training and procedures, and provide testing and personal protective equipment.

Rolling out a vaccine

There are six U.S. government-supported coronavirus vaccine trials that are in their final stage or will be by the end of 2020, according to Farley.

Not all of those trials will be ready, or could prove to be effective. But the city is hopeful that at least one vaccine will be ready to distribute before 2020 comes to a close. Now the city is working on a plan for who will get the vaccine first, and will give priority to high-risk people like nursing home residents. Health care workers who deal with high-risk patients could also be first on the list to receive the vaccine, to prevent them spreading it to their patients.

Since testing of the vaccines isn't finished, the city doesn't know a few key details:

  • which patients are OK to take an approved vaccine (some may not be recommended for people over 65, for example)
  • how many doses a patient will need
  • how to store and handle the doses for distribution

Depending on how the trials go, "we may be just weeks away from being able to the first vaccine to some people here in Philadelphia," Farley said.

Farley first speaks about nursing homes about 6 minutes into the news conference, which you can watch below. Vaccines are mentioned around 8 minutes in. Nursing homes are mentioned again around 53:30.

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