FARGO — Six months after North Dakota recorded its first COVID-19 death — a Navy vet who’d been living in a retirement home here — the pandemic continues to hit elderly people hard, many of whom are in long term care centers.
However, data show the state seems to be in better shape than some others in that regard.
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There are multiple ways to determine the toll the virus has taken on people in nursing homes and assisted living facilities — among them, by calculating the number of coronavirus deaths in those centers as part of overall deaths from the virus in each state.
As of Wednesday, Sept. 16, the North Dakota Department of Health reported 93 of its total 177 COVID deaths, or about 52%, as having occurred in people living in long term care centers.
In Minnesota, the state health department reported 1,402 of its 1,933 COVID deaths, or about 72%, as having occurred in long term care.
Due to the pandemic, the North Dakota Long Term Care Association has conducted a first-ever survey of the nearly 80 skilled nursing facilities in the state.
Shelly Peterson, president of the NDLTCA, said previous year statistics from the state health department were used to make comparisons.
The survey found an increase in overall deaths; however, not a considerable one, in skilled nursing centers in North Dakota through April of this year, the latest month the information was available.
The survey did not include May, the month that saw the largest number of COVID-19 deaths in the state thus far.
Peterson said she is considering doing another survey to get more updated information.
The survey showed 835 overall nursing facility deaths, or 42 more than during the same time period last year, and 18 more than the same period in 2018.
Nursing facilities in Fargo/West Fargo and Bismarck/Mandan reported about the same number of overall deaths through mid-May of this year, compared with the same period last year.
However, one factor that likely plays a role in offsetting an increase in deaths is a drop in occupancy of nursing facility beds statewide that started in April, as the pandemic took hold.
North Dakota typically has just over a 90% occupancy rate in those skilled care centers, but dipped to below 85% in June. It’s since rebounded some, to 87.5% in early September, Peterson said.
Occupancy in Fargo and West Fargo skilled care centers, hit hard earlier in the pandemic, sank to 80% in mid-May, but also has since rebounded some.
Peterson said some families have been afraid to move a loved one to a congregate living setting because of the pandemic and may also be reluctant to do so because of visitor restrictions.
They’re “waiting for this to be over,” she said, in reference to the pandemic.
Jon Riewer, president and CEO of Eventide Senior Living, said total deaths at their three care centers in the F-M area are down by about 8% from this time last year.
However, lower occupancy rates may play a role, he said.
Eventide hasn’t had a COVID-related death at any of its FM facilities since late June, he said, and the people who do test positive seem to be either asymptomatic or have symptoms that are less severe, he said.
At Bethany Retirement Living, CEO Shawn Stuhaug said overall deaths at their skilled care facilities are up 6% from this time last year; however, they’ve served nearly 10% more people.
“Even during this pandemic, we have admitted and discharged more people for short rehabilitation stays than at this time last year,” Stuhaug said.
In Minnesota, the total number of deaths among residents of long term care facilities rose notably after the pandemic began to take hold.
In April of this year, a total of 1,444 LTC residents died or about 320 more than the previous April, according to the Minnesota Department of Health.
In May, a total of 1,588 LTC residents died or about 400 more than the previous May.
The numbers do not take into account any variations in occupancy levels of those Minnesota facilities.
Another measure of the toll COVID-19 has taken can be found in excess mortality rates, which are tracked by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Dr. Paul Carson, an infectious disease specialist and public health professor at North Dakota State University, said although there were significant excess deaths in the U.S. and most states earlier in the pandemic, that wasn’t really the case in North Dakota — even in the advanced elderly.
Carson attributes that to the state’s primarily rural nature and its aggressive testing efforts.
The Johns Hopkins COVID-19 tracking website puts North Dakota in the top three tested states in the country, with mid to low positivity rates, he said.
The local nursing homes can attest to that ambitious level of testing.
Stuhaug said Bethany staff members have been tested more than 17 times since the pandemic began.
Most nursing facilities in the area are still doing weekly testing, now performed at Rheault Farm in Fargo, because the state has dedicated those resources.
“That’s what’s helping control these numbers,” Stuhaug said.
Though COVID-19 has become more manageable for nursing facilities now than it was early on, Riewer said they have to continue to be vigilant.
The seasonal influenza will soon be here, with cases expected to circulate along with COVID-19.
Also, nursing home cases and deaths tend to follow coronavirus outbreaks in the larger community.
“Our team is not letting our guard down,” Riewer said.
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