CHICAGO — Long the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic in Illinois, long-term care facilities have begun showing significant drops in the number of residents and workers dying of the novel coronavirus.
State data released last week ties 123 additional deaths to the virus. That’s about half the number of deaths in the previous week, and far lower than a weekly death toll that approached 500 in early May.
Still, advocates cautioned that promising figures shouldn’t spur thoughts of easing up on the practices that helped improve the picture, particularly as the state moves to the next phase of reopening and nursing homes begin to allow limited visits.
“While the numbers are down, the threat remains,” said Ryan Gruenenfelder, with AARP Illinois.
A similar theme was sounded by Pat Comstock, with the trade group Health Care Council of Illinois.
“While we are encouraged by the downward trend of fatalities and that outdoor visits are starting soon, we must continue vigilant infection control protocols, testing and staff screening,” she said in a statement.
The latest data offers promising signs beyond the lower weekly death tally. Of facilities that have seen an outbreak, 56 have gone at least 28 days without a positive case, a signal that the outbreaks in those homes are over. That includes some facilities with a heavy death toll, such as Symphony of Joliet, which had 130 positive cases that killed 25 residents and workers.
Still, the state data reflects the wide reach of the virus, now confirmed in at least 603 facilities in 45 counties. That’s 10 more facilities, and one additional county, than the week before.
In all, more than 22,170 residents and staff have been diagnosed as having the virus at some point, up from 21,476 last week. As of Friday, 3,772 deaths in long-term care facilities were tied to the virus, about 55% of all COVID-19 deaths in Illinois.
The Illinois Department of Public Health, which regulates the facilities and compiles the data, did not immediately respond to questions Friday.
The latest numbers come amid ongoing questions about the efforts to fight COVID-19 in nursing homes.
Recent federal data has shown that some facilities across Illinois continue to struggle with short staffing and a lack of protective gear. That struggle is part of a longer, broader debate about how much the state should do to help or police a mostly privately run industry with a poor track record of infection control before the pandemic.
It also remains unclear which facilities have tested residents and employees, and to what extent. Illinois has required facilities to come up with plans to test all staff members and residents, but doesn’t require the facilities to report if they’ve done so, and how regularly they do it.
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