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US nursing homes warn of looming shortage of masks and gowns

WASHINGTON — Many nursing homes risk running out of protective masks and gowns by next week because of the new coronavirus, and at least one facility already had to resort to using plastic garbage bags to make gowns, an industry group warned Wednesday.

“We really need to take drastic action to conserve masks and gowns going forward,” said Dr. David Gifford, chief medical officer at the American Health Care Association, one of the main trade groups representing the nation’s 15,600 nursing homes.

The industry group is calling on its members to stretch the use of personal protective equipment and asking other health care facilities such as dental offices to consider providing any unneeded supplies to nursing homes.

Along with cruise ships, nursing homes have emerged as a focus of heightened concern in the global pandemic. At least 30 of Washington state’s more than 50 deaths have been linked to one nursing home. Most of the dead were residents.

Gifford said based on a survey his group estimates that 1 in 5 nursing homes could run out of protective equipment next week, and a similar number the week following. The group is looking to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to issue guidance on how nursing homes can safely stretch supplies.

About 1.4 million patients are cared for in nursing homes and rehab facilities within such homes, mainly elderly and severely disabled people who are especially vulnerable to the coronavirus. Government programs like Medicaid and Medicare cover a significant share of the cost, with Medicare paying for rehab services only.

Mark Parkinson, CEO of the industry group, said the nation’s response now could literally save tens of thousands of lives. “We really have to take this quite seriously,” he told reporters on a call Wednesday morning. Officials are optimistic that eventually they’ll have enough supplies available, but they’re concerned about getting through the next few weeks.

For most people, the coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. Worldwide, more than 200,000 cases have been reported, and while most people recover in weeks, about than 8,200 have died.

Last week, nursing homes around the country shut down visits to residents, and facilities have also taken steps to isolate residents from one another by ending common activities, and serving meals in rooms. Some residents don’t understand why family visits have been interrupted, increasing the anxiety level within facilities.

Gifford said the industry group has heard of 20 to 30 nursing homes that are dealing with outbreaks, but that’s based on media reports. For maximum safety, all facilities should operate as if the virus had already gotten inside, he said.

“Even with our best efforts, they may not be able to keep it all out,” he said.

The administrator of the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, Seema Verma, said Tuesday that potential coronavirus infections in nursing homes are a growing concern in the U.S. and inspectors are focused on whether facilities are taking required measures to control infections.

“We are hearing more reports of COVID virus in nursing homes,” Verma told reporters.

She said the Seattle area, California and New York are currently the main areas of concern.

Verma said it has taken a few days to ramp up inspections, as even the government had to make sure there was enough personal protective equipment for inspectors going into facilities.

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Linda Johnson reported from Trenton, New Jersey.

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The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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