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KUNC is here to keep you up-to-date on the news about COVID-19 — the disease caused by the novel coronavirus — Colorado's response to its spread in our state and its impact on Coloradans.

Nursing, Residential Facilities Account For 40% Of Colorado Deaths, But Details Still Lacking

Erkan Utu

Public health officials are expected to roll out detailed information this week about COVID-19 cases and deaths at nursing homes and other facilities that house some of Colorado's most at-risk residents.

The information will include facility names, numbers of infections among staff and residents and deaths related to COVID-19. Up until now, that information has been hard to come by, though demands for it have risen as 68 nursing and residential health care facilities work to contain outbreaks and grapple with fatalities.

Little is known about how much a factor nursing and residential facilities are compared to the state as a whole. One indicator is a snapshot that goes back more than a week, to April 5. At that time 55 deaths of the state’s then-140 deaths were at nursing and residential facilities across the state, or 40%.

That’s the most up-to-date information state health officials could provide as of deadline (April 14) and since then, the number of deaths in Colorado has more than doubled. The state's effort to provide more information this week could either confirm or upend that trend.

In Weld County state and local officials have confirmed outbreaks at three specific facilities and at least 19 deaths, but would not say where the deaths occurred.

News reports have linked many of the county's deaths to Centennial Healthcare Center, a nursing home in Greeley, but neither Centennial nor the county would confirm that. A spokeswoman for Centennial turned down a request for an interview,  but issued a statement that said the safety and health of residents and staff is of "utmost importance" and that the center is working with the county.

Weld County Department of Health Executive Director Dr. Mark Wallace told KUNC in general terms that when there are possible outbreaks there are efforts to work with facilities to isolate residents.

"We review all of their infection prevention plans to really get in there and say, ‘OK, here's another little measure that can be done over here' and really being very disciplined about people not coming to work [if they're symptomatic], not putting people into the facility who could put other residents at risk," he said.

That mirrors what other state and local health officials have said about responding to outbreaks. An outbreak is when two or more residents have tested positive for COVID-19, or when there are two or more people with a fever or respiratory symptoms along with at least one lab-confirmed case of the virus.

Other preventative measures include assessing workers before they start shifts, including taking their temperatures. Those who don't feel well are told to stay home.

Gov. Jared Polis this week told reporters that his administration is working to add more protections for nursing and residential facilities.

"We want to do everything we can," Polis said.

He said he was working on ways to make testing more readily available, an action which would help isolate cases earlier, preventing the spread of the virus. State epidemiologist Dr. Rachel Herlihy told reporters on Tuesday that getting more protective equipment to workers at facilities would also help.

"We're continuing to look at the data and understand what risk factors might be," she said, adding, "it's certainly a priority of ours to understand if there are additional strategies we can implement to really try and protect that really vulnerable population."

There are also ongoing restrictions on visitors that have proven stressful for families looking for specific information about outbreaks at facilities caring for their loved ones.

That includes Larimer County, where there are outbreaks at two facilities. Katie O'Donnell, a spokesperson for the county health department, acknowledged families find it difficult to be isolated from loved ones. She said separation is a matter of life and death.

"The sooner that we take these restrictions seriously and stay out of our nursing homes, stay out of visiting folks that are that 60-plus age and those that are susceptible, the sooner we hope to be able to release these restrictions and loosen our regulations and go back to life without having to be worried about coming in to see family and friends," she said.

She added that the virus can be difficult to contain, especially if it is not identified early.

There are no indications across the state when life at nursing homes and residential facilities might return to the way it was before the coronavirus emergency.

Over the weekend, state health officials identified an assisted living home in Aurora -- Juniper Village -- where there have been eight deaths, five of which are related to COVID-19. The other three deaths are "probable" COVID-19 cases. An epidemiological report on the facility found that 33 of the 46 residents have tested positive for COVID-19 as well as 16 of 25 staffers.

There are no conclusive answers to why Juniper Village has so many cases. State health officials added that in early April they responded to a formal complaint about the facility's infection prevention practices. However, they said they'd likely be investigating that in the months ahead.

In the meantime, they are working with Juniper Village to implement any necessary corrective measures. Officials with Juniper Village's parent company did not return a call.

Updated April 14, 2020 at 3:27 p.m.: After deadline, Annaliese Impink provided the following statement and update for Centennial Healthcare Center in Greeley:

"At this time, we can confirm that 32 residents at Centennial Healthcare Center have tested positive for COVID-19. Unfortunately, we have had a total of 21 deaths at the Center. Seventeen of those residents tested positive for COVID-19. Four of the remaining residents were not tested postmortem."

Impink also stated:

"We know that this is an unsettling and scary time for our residents and their family members. We understand and greatly appreciate family members' concern for their loved ones and are doing all we can to keep our residents safe and protected. We will continue to update family members in the coming days as new information becomes available or as circumstances change. "We are working closely with the health authorities to follow their guidance and have been 100% transparent with all information released to the authorities, family members and the wider public, while maintaining the dignity and privacy of each of our residents."

As investigative reporter for KUNC, I take tips from our audience and, well, investigate them. I strive to go beyond the obvious, to reveal new facts, to go in-depth and to bring new perspectives and personalities to light.
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