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Why are there so many coronavirus deaths at Oregon nursing homes?

Residents of nursing homes tend to have underlying health conditions, live in close contact with others and rely on person-to-person interactions.

PORTLAND, Ore. — Oregon nursing homes and long-term care facilities have been hit especially hard by the coronavirus. Health officials confirm nearly half the COVID-19 deaths, or 24 of state’s 53, were people working or living in assisted living or long-term care facilities.

The highest concentrations, according to data released by the state, occurred at Healthcare at Foster Creek in Portland, with at least nine deaths and 35 cases. There were also large numbers at Laurelhurst Village in Portland and the Lebanon Veterans Home.

“We’ve never seen this kind of pandemic, where people who are older and in places like nursing homes and assisted living are so disproportionately affected,” said Alice Bonner, a geriatric nurse practitioner and adjunct faculty member at the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing. “It is really pretty dramatic when you look at the numbers.”

Residents of nursing homes tend to have pre-existing health conditions putting them at higher risk, Bonner explained.

Additionally, these residents live in close contact with one another and rely on person-to-person interaction for daily routines like getting dressed and dining.

“They’re sharing a room. Maybe they’re sharing a room with two people or even three,” Bonner said. “Their dining is communal. Activities and exercise, they tend to be group activities.”

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State health officials say they will step in to help those facilities that have become hot spots, with extra staffing, protective equipment and logistics. For example, Laurelhurst Village is contracting with the state to use a separate building as an emergency care center to help isolate residents being treated for coronavirus.

The union representing nursing home workers is asking for more testing and wants adequate paid time off- so sick workers can stay home and avoid spreading the virus.

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“If they’re sick, they shouldn’t have to decide between the economic stability of their family and coming to work,” explained Melissa Unger, president of SEIU Local 503.

Unger said both the state and federal governments should help health care workers, along with owners of these long-term care facilities.

“A lot of these folks go to work every day and make less than $30,000 a year,” said Unger. “So they’re caring for the people who are most important in our lives and barely making enough money to put food on the table.”

Oregon Health officials said by releasing this data, they hope it will help better monitor the virus at nursing homes and prepare for any future hot spots.

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