By: Ted Dabrowski and John Klingner
Illinois’ COVID-19 retirement home outbreaks have gotten significant media attention for their scale and terrible human cost, but little has been done to investigate why the spread wasn’t stopped. In all, nearly 2,000 of the state’s 4,058 deaths as of May 15 were tied to a long-term care (LTC) facility. And in Chicagoland, more than half of the region’s 700 retirement facilities have been hit by COVID-19.
When this crisis is finally over, Illinoisans will look back at the failure to protect the vulnerable residents of retirement homes as one of the worst tragedies of the COVID-19 crisis. The fact that cases and deaths have been so widespread means there was a systemic failure in protecting the elderly.
Every Illinois reporter should demand to know how this was allowed to happen.
What specific steps did the state take to protect LTC residents in the early days of the outbreak? When exactly did the state bar visitation and how strict was the order? How much guidance was initially provided to facilities? How much in PPE resources made it to facilities statewide? And perhaps most importantly, were hospitalized COVID-19 patients taken back by retirement homes, as happened in New York? Those questions and more should all be clearly answered by the state.
The level of long-term care deaths is surprising given Gov. J.B. Pritzker’ strong assurances that the state was dealing with the problem of LTCs even before he ordered the general lockdown. That’s on top of the fact that Illinoisans have been subject to one of the longest and most strict lockdowns in the nation.
The problem appears to continue unabated. In the last three weeks alone, 59 percent of all new deaths were tied to LTCs, according to Illinois Department of Public Health reports. Total COVID-19 deaths in Illinois increased by 2,263 from April 24 to May 15 – 1,350 of those deaths were tied to LTCs.
Here are some key facts:
- Nearly 49 percent of all Illinois COVID-19 deaths were linked to long-term care facilities, as of May 15. Of the state’s 4,058 total deaths, 1,975 came from LTCs.
- Of the 3,662 deaths in Cook and the collar counties, 47 percent were linked to LTCs.
- Of the 394 deaths outside Chicagoland, 64 percent were linked to LTCs.
- Of Cook County’s 396 facilities, 170, or 34 percent, have had one or more deaths related to COVID. 230 facilities, or 58 percent, have had positive cases.
- Deaths tied to LTCs were not made public until April 18. At the time, they were estimated to make up 25 percent of all deaths. Today, they make up 49 percent of deaths statewide.
Initially, no reporting on retirement home deaths
The danger of the virus to residents of Illinois’ LTC facilities was known from the onset of the COVID-19 crisis. Illinois had plenty of warning from the earlier outbreaks in Asia and Europe, as well as from the nation’s first outbreak in Kirkland, Washington’ Life Care Facility.
Those warnings should have prompted the state to be transparent regarding the impact on Illinois’ most-vulnerable residents. But prior to April 18, there was no official state count of retirement home cases or deaths. The only reporting done was by WBEZ, which accessed the Cook County Medical Examiner’s database to cross reference victims’ addresses with those of nursing homes. (This same database was used by Wirepoints to create a comorbidity report of Cook County COVID-19 deaths.)
The state only began publishing retirement home outbreak data after WBEZ’s initial reporting, finally recording the growing crisis in retirement homes. Illinois COVID-19 deaths linked to LTCs grew from a quarter of all deaths in late April, to a third in early May, to nearly half of all deaths as of May 15th.
Wirepoints’ recent coverage of retirement homes expanded upon the public data by providing LTC deaths as a percentage of all deaths on a county-by-county basis.
The state’s actions
Upon the initial release of retirement home data on April 19, Gov. Pritzker went on record stating he acted on retirement homes before the coronavirus outbreak began in Illinois. He said the state restricted visitation at nursing homes and began requiring staff wellness checks in early March.
From April 20 press conference:
“On February 28th, in my first public update dedicated specifically to the coronavirus, I highlighted that the data from other countries clearly showed that COVID-19 tends to cause more serious illness in elderly populations. And on March 4th, five days before we initiated our disaster proclamation, we established guidelines to maximize preparations at our nursing homes, veterans homes, and long-term care facilities. Long before the first nursing home case appeared in Illinois, the state implemented strict measures around restricting visitors at the long-term care facilities that we operate, such as the veterans homes and DHS facilities, and we collaborated with the industry associations to have the facilities that we regulate implement similar strict guidelines.”
From April 21 press conference:
“We started talking about and dealing with the problems in nursing homes in early March. This is before we ever had a disaster proclamation in the state and long before we ever had a stay at home order. We shut down visitation at nursing homes and began to do wellness checks of the personnel there.”
The fact that COVID-19 has spread so far across the state’s long-term care facilities despite Gov. Pritzker’s assurances should raise serious concerns about the effectiveness of the state’s response.
One could lay the problem at the feet of the retirement homes themselves. Did the state leave protections and responses to their discretion, and did they make mistakes? We don’t know.
But in any case, the state cannot be blameless. Officials’ knowledge of how vulnerable nursing home residents were and what could go wrong – inadequate levels of testing and PPE supplies, employees working at multiple facilities, the potential for infected residents to be moved from hospitals back to retirement homes – raises the question of what actions the state actually took.
The long-term care tragedy has major implications for both Illinois’ continued approach to protecting the most vulnerable and the state’s reopening strategy.
First, the more the state gets a handle on the retirement home outbreak, the more control it will have over the source of half of the deaths in Illinois so far. Redirecting the state’s focus and resources toward LTCs can protect the most concentrated at-risk demographics in Illinois.
That, in turn, will help eliminate the need for a broader lockdown. Right now, the sheer scale of the failure to protect long-term care residents helps fuel Gov. Pritzker’s justification for an extended shutdown.
The death of 2,000 elderly residents and their caretakers is a travesty. One that deserves both questions and transparent answers.
Read more about COVID-19 and the impact on Illinois:
- Morning Parking Ban to Crush Chicago Churchgoers: Entire Neighborhood Gets No Parking/Tow Warning
- Pritzker’s overly-restrictive shutdown rules make Illinois a national outlier
- COVID-19 pushes nation’s weakest pension plans closer to the brink: A 50-state survey
- Half of Illinois’ deaths linked to retirement homes. Five key facts you should know.
- Indifference to Illegality of Illinois Stay-at-Home Order is Frightening
- Wirepoints analysis reveals 92 percent of Cook County COVID-19 victims had pre-existing conditions
- Pritzker’s top-down reopen strategy will fail large parts of IL: He should expect pushback
- COVID-19: Seven facts that tell us Illinoisans can and must get back to work