Edie Starr, of South Windsor, right, talks to her brother Burt Deane through the window at Manchester Manor Health Care Center. When Deane was fighting with coronavirus a few months ago, Starr and her older brother Phil Deane would communicate with Deane through thumbs up and thumbs down through the closed window. Burt recovered from the coronavirus. Yehyun Kim / ctmirror.org

Coronavirus infections among nursing home residents are on the rise again, increasing almost six-fold over one month.

For the two-week period ending April 12, 85 infections were recorded among nursing home residents in Connecticut. For the two-week period ending May 10, 478 infections were reported.

Staff infections also rose, to 346 for the two-week period ending May 10, up from 115 during the two-week stretch that ended April 12.

Nursing home infections and deaths are made public every two weeks in Connecticut.

The increase in COVID-19 cases in long-term care facilities mirrors a rise in community spread. The state’s positivity rate Thursday was 14%, a considerable upswing from the end of February, when the first omicron wave subsided and the state’s daily positivity rate hovered around 2% to 3%. And with many people using home rapid tests to detect infection, some positive cases are not being counted.

Hospitalizations, which by mid-March had fallen below 100, reached 369 on Thursday.

During the two weeks ending April 12, only one COVID-related nursing home resident death was recorded. During the two weeks ending May 10, 12 such fatalities were reported.

The infection and death rates among residents are still far lower they were in 2020, when thousands were infected and nursing home deaths represented more than 60% of Connecticut’s overall COVID-19 fatalities.

But as fewer people don masks and restrictions to curb the spread of the virus are removed, infections are spiking again.

“I’m not seeing the same level of focus in the community. And my perception is that we all want COVID to go away, we all wish it would go away. But wishing will not make it happen,” said Bill White, whose family owns the Beechwood Post-Acute & Transitional Care Center in New London. “I just really encourage people to continue to be cautious. If you have symptoms, don’t assume it’s allergies — get yourself tested. The best help that the nursing homes can get is from the people in the community self-monitoring.”

White took to social media this week and appealed to those who have loved ones in long-term care facilities.

“What I wrote is basically: Please be cautious in your private lives. Because when you visit our nursing home, your lives intersect with ours, and we have people who are at risk,” he said. “They don’t realize there’s still a big piece of the population that’s very vulnerable. Folks don’t necessarily think of that impact.”

Although hospitalization and death rates have so far been lower in this wave than previously during the pandemic, White said, “there are still people who can get very sick and die. We just ask people to keep that in mind when they’re making choices about what they do and where they go.”

Nursing homes are still allowing visitation, though most facilities require guests to wear a mask. In recent months, many homes have stopped requiring visitors to submit a negative COVID test.

As cases increase, an already arduous staffing shortage has been more difficult, with workers calling out sick to quarantine.

“It worsens the staffing, which is already — we continue to say over and over — the worst it has ever been in the history of the sector,” said Matthew Barrett, president and CEO of the Connecticut Association of Health Care Facilities.

Some nursing homes have had to turn away prospective new patients who are being discharged from hospitals because they don’t have the staff needed to care for the influx, Barrett said.

And with higher COVID cases, referrals from hospitals have gone up in some areas.

“One of the things we look at is the volume of referrals that we’re seeing coming out of the hospitals; not necessarily COVID patients, but just the overall volume gets increased because COVID puts pressure on the system, and then everything else starts to feel pressured as well,” said White.

“Nursing homes remain in probably the most staffing-challenged state they’ve been in, in my 25 years as an administrator and longer in this business. … As we get busier, it’s wonderful, but it really puts a lot of challenge on us.”

In highlighting the crisis, the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living pointed to data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics showing long-term care facilities have lost more than 400,000 workers between February 2020 and March 2022. 

“That far outpaces other health care sectors,” the organizations wrote in a news release. “Pandemic-related issues have caused increased burnout among caregivers. Coupled with the inability of many providers to compete against other employers because of chronic underfunding, long-term care providers are facing a crisis of historic proportions.”

For now, nursing home leaders aren’t calling on the state to reopen the recovery centers that helped take pressure off the facilities during surges in 2020. The centers allowed nursing homes to transfer COVID-positive residents to designated buildings for care, and they also accepted COVID-positive patients from hospitals before later moving them to nursing homes after the patients recovered.

“We wouldn’t be saying we’re anywhere near recommending the recovery facilities,” Barrett said. “It’s something that you always need to be monitoring and mindful of. But we wouldn’t … conclude that right now.”

Many nursing homes are hosting vaccination clinics for residents and staff who want to receive a second booster shot. Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that 89% of nursing home residents in Connecticut have received an additional primary dose or booster dose of a COVID vaccine.

Anna Doroghazi, associate director of advocacy and outreach for the AARP in Connecticut, said as cases and hospitalizations increase, people should be mindful of how their actions affect others, especially those most vulnerable.

“It’s unfortunate that a lot of the same folks in our society who were ignored before the pandemic continue to be ignored at this point in time,” she said. “I understand that people want to move on. I want to move on. But I wish we were all being more thoughtful about how we account for the impact our actions have on older and disabled individuals as we quote-unquote return to normal.”

Jenna is CT Mirror’s Health Reporter, focusing on health access, affordability, quality, equity and disparities, social determinants of health, health system planning, infrastructure, processes, information systems, and other health policy. Before joining CT Mirror Jenna was a reporter at The Hartford Courant for 10 years, where she consistently won statewide and regional awards. Jenna has a Master of Science degree in Interactive Media from Quinnipiac University and a Bachelor or Arts degree in Journalism from Grand Valley State University.