Nationwide struggle misses Santa Barbara skilled nursing facilities
Residents of nursing homes and their staff members nationwide tested positive for COVID-19 during what the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living is labeling an “alarming spike” this month. Skilled nursing facilities in Santa Barbara are contending with a more manageable caseload during Omicron’s spread.
Just three of 14 facilities in the county are facing active COVID-19 cases within their resident population, according to the California Department of Public Health.
Their challenge lies with staffing, for 12 facilities have active staff cases. Of those, all but one have fewer than 11 active staff cases.
Laurie Small, Covenant Living at the Samarkand executive director, told the News-Press that cases have been decreasing since earlier this month. There have been 10 employee cases reported to CDPH this month from the Samarkand, though close-contact quarantines add to the number of staff missing.
To fill gaps in the schedule, the Samarkand incentivized part-time workers to cover shifts. The facility is also certifying new part-time nursing assistants and expanding its team.
Edgar Lopez, executive director of the Californian of Santa Barbara, said the pandemic has been “very tiring” and “very exhausting” for the healthcare industry. Omicron added to the stress.
“COVID is everywhere. We’re not exempt,” he said. “Omicron is everywhere.”
The Californian has reported two resident and two staff cases over the past month. He said, as a small facility, he has been able to find coverage when staff members are sick with his pre-existing staff.
“I think California has been so conservative throughout the pandemic that we tend to have fared better than other states,” Ms. Small said.
Health care workers are required to get vaccinated in California, though they may receive exemptions for religious beliefs or medical reasons if they are regularly tested.
Ms. Small said almost 100% of her residents are vaccinated. Their COVID-19 cases have been mild lately and have recovered without needing outside treatment.
“It’s been an interesting flip to where we were earlier in the pandemic. Before, we had fewer cases that were more intense, and now we have more cases that are mild,” she said.
She’s heard some experts predict that a mild mutation of COVID-19 will become endemic, but she’s “not letting (her) guard down.”
“During the whole pandemic, we’ve been so focused on protecting vulnerable populations, such as elderly persons and the immunocompromised. So we’re keeping vigilance up,” she said.
The weekly COVID-19 death rate per 1,000 nursing home residents was .6 nationwide, as of Jan. 9, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. Dec. 20, 2020, that rate was nearly 5.7 — meaning death was almost 10 times as frequent roughly two years ago.
“We’re extremely concerned how this surge will impact our already dire labor crisis, as caregivers must isolate if they test positive,” Dr. David Gifford, geriatrician and chief medical officer for AHCA/NCAL, said in a news release. “Staffing shortages impact access to care for our vulnerable residents and impede our ability to help overwhelmed hospitals.”
AHCA/NCAL sent a letter earlier this month to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, urging for the renewal of the public health emergency declaration. Health Secretary Xavier Becerra extended the declaration Friday for an additional 90 days.
Mr. Lopez said it’s hard to find new staff members currently for his small facility. Ms. Small said recruitment has increased in recent weeks, and she is hiring a traveling nurse for the first time to fill in.
There weren’t any caretakers available locally through registries. “Everybody’s in need of staff,” she said.
Another similarity between the two executive directors is their answer to the question: How could public health officials better assist you? Both noted everchanging guidelines.
Ms. Small said it can be hard to set the best protocol when agencies differ on their guidelines. When procedures change, Samarkand communicates through multiple mediums to reach each resident: website, its internal TV station, paper memos and email.
Mr. Lopez informs residents and family members, translating pandemic lingo into layman’s terms.
“All the nurses and all the health care workers in general are working around the clock,” he said. “We’re, what, two years into it now.”
At the start of 2022, 3% of California’s skilled nursing facilities had outbreaks. The state’s peak was in December of 2020 when 30%of facilities encountered outbreaks.