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How the state is working to reduce the spread of coronavirus at nursing homes

Around 60% of the COVID-19 deaths in Colorado have been tied to nursing homes or long-term care facilities

DENVER — A lack of testing and personal protective equipment is aiding the spread of COVID-19 inside nursing homes and residential care centers. The number of people who have died in those facilities in Colorado now makes up more than half of all COVID-19 deaths in the state.

If there’s anyone who knows the challenges of stopping the spread of COVID-19, Randy Kuykendall is that guy.

"It’s a struggle" said Kuykendall, the director of the Health Facilities and Emergency Medical Services division at the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment (CDPHE). "It’s a struggle, because we also don’t have the testing materials that we wish we had. We should be testing everyone in these facilities but we can’t."

Kuykendall leads the state health department's battle against the virus inside nursing homes and senior care facilities.

Around 40,000 people live inside more than 1,000 residential care facilities in Colorado, according to Kuykendall. At least 342 of those people have died from the virus after a confirmed positive test. While those are confirmed cases, an additional 91 people who died inside these facilities do not have lab-confirmed positive tests but are considered to have probably had the virus. 

Probable COVID-19 deaths are included in the state’s death toll and must have COVID-19 listed as a cause of death on the death certificate.

Kuykendall said deaths from people in nursing home and senior care centers now make up around 60% of all COVID-19 deaths in the state. The goal is to bring the number down to 40%.

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"They’re not able to switch out their PPE as frequently as is ideal. You should get fresh PPE when you move from one patient to another, there is not enough there," said Kuykendall, acknowledging that the lack of PPE likely aids the spread of the virus. 

CDPHE believes between 12% and 20% of all staff members at senior care facilities may be asymptomatic carriers, spreading the virus without knowing they’re infected.

As of April 29, nearly 600 staff members inside senior care facilities had confirmed positive tests. Another 469 were probably also infected.

"That is one of our greatest fears, our workforce being depleted to the point where we are no longer to care for this population," Kuykendall said. "We’re seeing everyday in our facilities insufficient PPE, we’re seeing caregivers doing their very best wearing trash bags. The good news is that’s becoming less and less."

The department now visits 40 to 50 facilities a week to check for compliance with public health orders. They’ve issued several citations.

At first, the state prioritized which facilities they inspected based on if they had any disease control citations in the past three years. Now they are inspecting as many as they possibly can, including visiting virtually. 

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