Health officials said last week a fourth round of universal testing is beginning to show a dramatic decrease in the positivity rate at the Charlotte Hall Veterans Home, where a significant portion of residents and staff have been affected by COVID-19 over the past few months.
The most recent data from the St. Mary’s health department says 205 residents and 93 staff members at the county’s largest long-term care facility have tested positive for the disease caused by SARS-CoV2, and state health department data shows that one staff member and 56 residents have died of the virus so far. That is about one in seven residents, based on an approximate count of 375 veterans and spouses given by a state spokesperson in April.
According to the county health department, only 29 of those 56 deceased were counted toward St. Mary’s County’s COVID-19 fatality data, which showed 51 deaths in total in the county as of Sunday, meaning that over half of the county’s deaths, and close to a third of the county’s 644 total cases, have come from the veterans home.
Asked how the veterans home became a local hot spot for the pandemic, the county and state health departments, as well as the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs, sent the Maryland Independent a joint statement which noted the veterans home had been aggressive in preventative measures while preparing for the pandemic, but conceded that the densely packed facility has had challenges with slowing the spread.
The facility’s many staff traveling home after work, and residents exiting and reentering for medical services included the risk of introducing the novel coronavirus into the veterans home, officials said in the statement, and when the home was experiencing its first cases in late March, testing and lab capacity was severely limited.
“This exacerbated the challenge of controlling the asymptomatic spread of infection at [the veterans home], as much of disease containment is dependent on being able to identify the presence of disease and protect those who may be at risk,” officials said in the statement.
However, early on, the veterans home had planned for aggressive measures to stop the spread at the facility, including staying ahead of state-level testing orders such as universal testing and testing based on a broader range of symptoms prior to that, they said. St. Mary’s Health Officer Dr. Meena Brewster also implemented a public health order for quarantine at the facility prior to any locality in the state. The Maryland National Guard had also been involved in conducting universal testing at the facility, and as the results of the fourth round of testing have been trickling in, “early results suggest a dramatically reduced positivity rate compared to prior rounds of universal testing,” according to health officials.
Officials said the veterans home “has excelled in multiple infection control inspections conducted by state and national authorities,” and that the state health department’s Office of Health Care Quality is currently conducting a survey at the facility.
The Maryland Independent has filed public information requests for the results of previous surveys at all facilities in the county.
The St. Mary’s County Nursing and Rehabilitation Center has added one staff case as of last Wednesday, and a case at Discovery Commons at Wildewood has been removed from the state health department’s website. Chesapeake Shores in Lexington Park previously had two residential cases and six staff cases, but has long passed a 14-day benchmark of not having additional cases. Gov. Larry Hogan (R) recently allowed restricted outdoor visitation for nursing homes which reach that benchmark.
Ann Bowdan Wilder, a spokesperson for the company which runs Chesapeake Shores, said last week the facility is currently continuing its previous restricted visitation, but is working to devise a plan to allow limited outdoor visitation.