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.

Major implications

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:

25 Comments
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Becker
5 months ago

The state public health department is responsible and the owners of these LTC facilities should be held accountable
The PPE was not supplied from the beginning
There was no training for staff
I work in LTC and non clinical and I got Covid
The staff is not trained properly and they are short staff and work the staff to death
And it continues
The owners and upper management are only concerned about the bottom line
It is so sad
I am from Illinois …

NB-Chicago
5 months ago
Reply to  Becker

Hope your ok. But good point, where’s illinois dept of health been? It’s there job to regulate. Where were all the state inspectors, sitting at home, as they are today collecting big checks? Also, correct me if im wrong but when the pandemic was getting started the state suspended newly passed ‘minium staffing law’ and passed lawsuite protection laws for nursing homes (although sure there will still be a mountain of lawsuites).

NB-Chicago
5 months ago
Reply to  NB-Chicago

I believe jb issued a stay at home/work from home order for state employees back in march (afscme was all in). How many idph workers that could be monitoring nursing homes (because thats their job) are sitting at home collecting fat checks while people are dying. Nobody in the press asks….sombody in press (wp?) or legal community needs to file the foia’s and find out whats going on

Maria
5 months ago
Reply to  Becker

My mom’s nursing home didn’t take proper efficient precautions when they found out two staff members had it. When patients started getting it did not keep the family informed. My mom’s roommate became sick and they did not take precautions to change rooms. They just started moving negative patients last Tuesday which was a month after first case. They should have tested everyone and separated them earlier to keep them safe. My mom’s roommate was tested after 9 days of being sick and ended up positive so my mom was exposed almost two weeks to it. My mom just got… Read more »

Admin
5 months ago
Reply to  Maria

Our thoughts are with you and her. God speed.

Matt
5 months ago

Can’t believe I’m about to compliment Florida governor Ron DeSantis as a Democrat, but it seems their response has been very targeted and effective relative to others. National Review has a good article about their response being helped from past experience with natural disasters. Florida likely gets a benefit from warm weather reducing transmission, but nursing homes are going to be a year round risk. Data doesn’t lie and viruses don’t have political affiliations so hopefully Pritzker, Cuomo, and others can show some humility and adopt best practices.

https://www.nationalreview.com/2020/05/coronavirus-crisis-ron-desantis-florida-covid-19-strategy

Mr_Common_Sense
5 months ago
Reply to  Matt

Ron DeSantis is a Republican.

Matt
5 months ago

My bad, I’m currently a Democrat though I’ve voted for many Republicans in the past too. The media narrative was that DeSantis was butchering Floridians when his response was actually reasonable and based on science!

debtsor
5 months ago
Reply to  Matt

Not sure who you can in good faith call yourself a Democrat when you think logically, and use science (instead of just saying you use science). There are few if any of you people left in the Democrat party. Welcome home Matt, welcome home. We have a big tent and all are welcome here.

Illinois Entrepreneur
5 months ago
Reply to  Matt

Your first clue that DeSantis was not a Democrat should have been to notice that the “media narrative was that DeSantis was butchering Floridians…”

ji
5 months ago

Some (or many) of these places have large entrance fees where services are prepaid. This makes it difficult to exit. Will the facilities survive the economic hit and where will the surviving residents go?

Mark Felt
5 months ago

If people were smart they would take a look at the deaths in states run by Democratic governors. The results are not pleasant.

UnclePugsly
5 months ago

I believe in this instance of malfeasance which has led to many needless deaths, a class action lawsuit against the state and Pritzker is in order.

Freddy
5 months ago

In Canada 80% of Covid deaths are in nursing homes. Worldwide almost 50% of Covid deaths are in nursing homes. Many in their late 70’s and 80’s. Like I have stated before the common link may be extremely low Vitamin D levels and other essential nutrients. Up to 80% of nursing home patients are very low In Vit D. Being in close proximity to each other when body defenses are at their lowest is a recipe for disaster. If you have a large cut or untreated wound you are open to infection. Similar on the inside if you are low… Read more »

Mike Williams
5 months ago

Ok. I’ll play devils advocate. Sometimes circumstances can overwhelm us. Sometimes the deck is simply stacked against us. Yes, Illinois screws up just about everything, but on occasion there is no deserving scapegoat. Did Illinois leaders cause the LTC deaths? For now, I’m willing to give the benefit of the doubt. That being said, Illinois leadership once again fails miserably in being truthful. The policies they are pushing seem to treat the entire state as if it were one big LTC facility, probably for political reasons.

Yoz
5 months ago
Reply to  Mike Williams

The problem with this argument is we are seeing rising death tolls in LTCs week after week. At what point does one no longer give them the benefit of the doubt? Two weeks into the pandemic? Two months? Which seems reasonable to you?

Admin
5 months ago
Reply to  Mike Williams

Mike, I want to agree with you in many ways. It’s an unexpected tragedy by a virus that attacks the elderly in congregate settings. But, as I just added to the piece, you can’t help but think they still haven’t taken the steps to clamp down on the problem. Consider this: “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.” Some of… Read more »

NiteCat
5 months ago
Reply to  Mike Williams

It is well known that IL LTCs are understaffed and with the exception of the medical professionals assigned the rest of the staff are not the most highly educated of our population, paid minimum wages & overworked. Most do the best with what they have, others are nightmares. Why is this??? Well, you can take a hard look at the politicians. With 75% of our state budget locked into non-discretionary items, that leaves 25% of the budget they can “play” with. Who gets the least funding and the first cuts?? Always health & human services. These facilities should be staffed… Read more »

debtsor
5 months ago
Reply to  NiteCat

Oh nitecat, the ‘both sides’ argument again. No, not everyone dropped the ball. JB and his administration dropped the ball, big time. He should have spent more time focusing on nursing homes instead of bickering with the orange man. But the man can’t help himself. And thousands died as a result. Trying to blame ‘bean counters’ is nonsense.

Illinois Entrepreneur
5 months ago
Reply to  NiteCat

“Corporate owners and bean counters…?”

Have you ever run a business?

A
5 months ago

But if they were look at the need not just final dollar these places wouldn’t be understaffed

A
5 months ago
Reply to  NiteCat

You hit it right on the head

Lindsay Karnes
5 months ago
Reply to  NiteCat

I AGREE. Some of these facilities are just horrible. Understaffed, employees are underpaid, No accountability from those in charge. All while the owners make millions.

Lindsay Karnes
5 months ago
Reply to  Mike Williams

I BELIEVE IT’S ALL FOR POLITICAL REASONS.

Yoz
5 months ago

Typo: One that deserves both [[and]] questions and transparent answers.