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Coronavirus creeping into Massachusetts senior sites

Despite precautions, at least a half dozen have confirmed cases

A sign in an upper floor window at the Jack Satter House in Revere, which has the largest known outbreak of coronavirus for senior facilities in the state.
A sign in an upper floor window at the Jack Satter House in Revere, which has the largest known outbreak of coronavirus for senior facilities in the state.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

The coronavirus is creeping into senior housing in Massachusetts, despite urgent efforts to isolate residents and bar visitors. More than 20 cases have been confirmed in at least six senior living sites in the state, and two residents have died.

The Jack Satter House in Revere has the largest known outbreak at senior facilities statewide, with seven residents testing positive for the virus, city officials reported Thursday. Five have been hospitalized, one is recovering, and one has died, though the cause of death has not been officially determined.

“This is an incredibly aggressive virus,” said Lou Woolf, president of Hebrew SeniorLife, which operates the Jack Satter House and seven other senior facilities in the Boston area. “People need to take this as seriously as they possibly can."

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The actual number of cases at the state’s senior housing facilities, including independent living residences such as the Jack Satter House along with nursing homes, long-term care, and memory care sites, is almost certainly higher than those reported.

But a precise count is not available to the public. State public health officials, who release updated data daily, aren’t breaking out how many of the 2,417 virus cases and 25 deaths in Massachusetts reported Thursday have been residents of senior facilities. Many of the senior sites themselves notify health authorities, residents, and their families when infections break out, but they don’t disclose the outbreaks publicly.

Messages taped to an upper floor window at the Jack Satter House in Revere, which has the largest known outbreak at senior facilities statewide.
Messages taped to an upper floor window at the Jack Satter House in Revere, which has the largest known outbreak at senior facilities statewide.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Nationally, public health officials and senior housing operators are increasingly concerned about the galloping pace of the virus’s spread. While the full extent of its penetration isn’t known, a report Monday by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services, which regulates skilled nursing facilities, said 147 sites in 27 states have at least one resident who’s tested positive for the virus. Industry officials believe the number at nursing homes and other senior sites is much higher.

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“The elderly are at great risk,” said Mark Parkinson, president of the American Health Care Association and the National Center for Assisted Living in Washington. “We’re talking about a fast-moving virus that’s a perfect killing machine for the elderly.”

Because the long-term care sites aren’t medical centers, residents showing symptoms such as a fever or cough are generally taken by ambulance to nearby hospitals, increasing the risks of spreading the virus, and are returned to quarantine in their rooms as they recover. Staffers who show symptoms are asked to stay off-site for two weeks.

A home health worker at The Jack Satter House in Revere walked a dog on Friday.
A home health worker at The Jack Satter House in Revere walked a dog on Friday.John Tlumacki/Globe Staff


Local officials across Massachusetts are alarmed by the threat to senior housing in their cities and towns.

“It is imperative that everyone take measures to stem the spread within our community by staying at home,” Revere Mayor Brian Arrigo said Thursday, reporting a total of 33 virus cases in the city.

The risk of serious complications or death from the coronavirus is particularly severe for older residents and those with serious underlying medical conditions. The risk was highlighted in a Kirkland, Wash., nursing home, Life Care Center, where investigators this month recorded 129 cases of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus, killing more than 30 people. Even the most stringent measures to keep the virus at bay aren’t fail-safe.

“Something can slip in, despite all the extreme precautions you’ve put in place,” said Walter Ramos, chief executive of Rogerson Communities in Roslindale, which runs 29 senior facilities in the Boston area, including one housing a 91-year-old man who died of coronavirus last week.

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Ramos said he and his team don’t know how the resident, who lived at the Rogerson House memory care center in Jamaica Plain, was infected. He was taken to Carney Hospital in Dorchester after showing “flu-like” symptoms. A second resident later tested positive at Massachusetts General Hospital and is being quarantined in his room at Rogerson House, while a health care worker who also tested positive has been asked to self-quarantine outside the facility.

Most long-term care facilities have told friends and relatives to stay away and shut their dining rooms for the foreseeable future, instead bringing meals to residents’ rooms. But senior care operators say the virus could be transmitted by infected health care workers who are asymptomatic or even by touching packages or food that is delivered to residents.

Even the repeated guidance to wash hands and keep a distance from other residents can go for naught at memory care facilities, where residents with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia forget the entreaties shortly after they’re told, operators said.

Woolf and Ramos said they know of no confirmed coronavirus cases at their other properties. But the virus has infected residents at other area senior sites over the past 10 days.

Benchmark Senior Living, which manages 28 properties in Massachusetts, has confirmed that three residents of The Branches of North Attleboro, an assisted living and memory care facility, have tested positive, as did one resident at the Commons in Lincoln, an assisted living site, and one staffer at Waltham Crossings, an assisted living and memory care site. Two staff members in North Attleboro also tested positive.

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At its sites throughout the Northeast region, Benchmark said 20 residents had tested positive for the coronavirus as of Thursday, and two others had died. Neither of the deaths were at sites in Massachusetts, the spokeswoman said.

Meanwhile, in Kingston, a resident in the memory care section of the Assisted Living at Silver Lake complex has tested positive, while three other residents are awaiting the results of coronavirus tests at a nearby hospital, according to a spokeswoman for the property, managed by Wingate Healthcare of Needham. She said two employees who came into contact with the resident who tested positive are self-quarantining while awaiting their own test results.

And in Bourne, a spokeswoman for Cape Cod Senior Residences, an independent and assisted living community, confirmed that a resident with underlying health conditions had tested positive and been hospitalized.

Woolf, of Hebrew Senior Life, said he feared some seniors aren’t taking the risk seriously enough.

“Imagine there was an angry rattlesnake outside your door,” he said. “Would you go out? Because there is an angry rattlesnake outside your door.”


Robert Weisman can be reached at robert.weisman@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRobW. Martin finucane can be reached at martin.finucane@globe.com.