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15 reported dead in Norwood facility as nearly 80 nursing, assisted living centers battle coronavirus clusters

Staff at the Charlwell House say more than a dozen recent deaths appears related to COVID-19.

Charlwell House Health & Rehabilitation Center in Norwood.
Charlwell House Health & Rehabilitation Center in Norwood.Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

At least 15 people at a Norwood nursing home have died of what staff members believe were coronavirus infections or related complications, the latest outbreak in an epidemic that state officials say has hit one-tenth of the state’s long-term-care facilities.

The deaths at the Charlwell House Health & Rehabilitation Center occurred in the last 12 days, according to three employees with direct knowledge. Officials also reported deaths Thursday at nursing homes in Littleton, Worcester, and Greenfield, where one facility alone saw six fatalities.

And, in newly disclosed statewide data, officials identified at least one case of coronavirus at 85 long-term care facilities across Massachusetts, including nursing homes, rest homes, and assisted living centers — or one of every 10 of the 700 facilities across the state.

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“Frankly, if we hadn’t put the restrictions [on visitors] in place that we had, the situation probably would be worse,” Marylou Sudders, the state’s health and human services secretary, said Thursday. “We are working hard to mitigate these clusters and keep residents and staff safe.”

Governor Charlie Baker said Thursday that the peak of the COVID-19 crisis could arrive between April 10 and April 20, a sobering prediction given state officials said the state’s death toll reached 154 Thursday. The number of confirmed cases statewide jumped by more than 1,200, pushing the state’s total to nearly 9,000.

Cases in the state could range from 47,000 to 172,000 over the course of the epidemic, he said.

In readying for the expected surge, Mayor Martin J. Walsh said the massive Boston Convention and Exhibition Center in the Seaport would become the site of a field hospital, with 500 beds for the city’s homeless and 500 for overflow patients coming from the city’s hospitals.

The facility could also be used for those whose symptoms are too severe to stay at home but not severe enough to require a stay in a traditional hospital at a time when capacity is strained by the growing number of serious cases, Boston officials said.

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The 2.1 million-square-foot BCEC has almost 12 acres of contiguous floor space. Meeting rooms throughout the building could be used to isolate patients, officials said, and there are relatively few entrances and exits, making it easy to secure. The center also has New England’s largest kitchen, and there are plenty of bathrooms.

“A surge right now is in motion. It’s going to be difficult and hard," Walsh said.

Around the state, it became clear that the coronavirus is tearing through nursing homes, striking the old and the sick, and the people who take care of them.

At the Charlwell House in Norwood, a co-owner of the facility said that seven residents who died had tested positive for the virus, but said due to underlying health conditions, COVID-19 was listed as the official cause of death for only three of the residents. The other eight recent deaths had not been tested, said Chris Roberts, vice president of operations. Their deaths were also the result of underlying conditions, he said.

State officials said Thursday that 18 veterans have now died at the state-run Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, with at least 12 testing positive for COVID-19. Three other tests are still pending, and 23 veterans and seven staff in total have tested positive.

And two veterans have also died after contracting the virus at the Chelsea Soldiers’ Home, where 16 people — nine residents and seven staffers — have also tested positive.

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In Worcester, three residents of Jewish HealthCare Center have died and 13 others, along with four staffers, have tested positive.

Chief executive Steve Willens said Thursday that other residents are showing coronavirus symptoms but haven’t yet been tested because the center’s private lab contractor has run out of test kits. Willens said he’s requested tests by the National Guard and is waiting for its lab technicians to arrive.

“We’ve been hit hard,” Willens said. “We’re trying to control it.”

In Greenfield, 17 patients at the Buckley Healthcare Center tested positive for COVID-19, according to the facility’s website. And six residents of Poet’s Seat Health Care have died of COVID-19, said Michele Carney, the administrator and co-owner.

Carney said she did not know how many patients in total had been infected, though four or five staff at the 63-bed facility have also tested positive.

“I take this deeply personally,” said Carney, who owns the facility with her son. “There isn’t some corporation where people are making decisions 50 miles away.”

Dani Letourneau, chief of staff to Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner, said facility leaders have been forthcoming with the city about the toll COVID-19 has taken on patients and staff.

It was a vastly different tone in Littleton, where at least 17 people have tested positive at the Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley, including one resident who died, company officials said Thursday.

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But state and federal lawmakers fumed Thursday, charging that the facility and its Tennessee-based parent company were not being forthcoming with information.

Representative Lori Trahan, whose district includes Littleton, said she had to resort to “cobbled-together” reports from first responders and local hospitals, and warned there could actually be four to five deaths tied to the facility after patients were transported from the home.

Littleton fire officials said that in the span of six days, they transported up to 17 patients from the facility, and that it had become a “hot spot.”

“When you have a senior living facility that is sending patients out to nearby hospitals [at that rate], there should just be alarms going off and a feedback loop,” said Trahan, a Westford Democrat who represents Littleton.

“It’s not clear to me whether it’s four or five,” she said of the total number of deaths. “I think we’re all just craving some transparency from this corporation.”

Tim Killian, a spokesman for Life Care Centers, disputed that the company is holding back information, but cautioned that the data it has released is the “best information we have.”

“This is not us trying to not be transparent,” Killian said. “To our best knowledge, we have one [death]. We do have calls into hospitals but not one has confirmed to us any other than just one. And that may change tomorrow.”

In a statement earlier Thursday, Life Care Center officials said they were working closely with the state Department of Public Health and have been “following the latest guidelines, from both state and federal authorities,” including barring visitors from its facility since early March.

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Town officials released a joint statement Thursday night saying the National Guard would “mobilize and respond to the facility on Friday, and our understanding is that extensive testing will take place among the staff and residents.”

Baker took other steps Thursday to spur on social distancing around the state. He issued an order requiring all coastal beach reservation parking areas to close, which he said was intended to reduce large concentrations of people at beaches.

Coastal parkways that provide access to state beaches will also be closed to both parking and dropping off passengers, the state said.

The beaches will remain open if people can get there, but only for “transitory” activities such as walking and for fishing. Sunbathing has been ruled out, according to the order.

Walsh, at his news conference, stressed that social distancing is important and asked people not to flout the rules as temperatures rise and the sun peeks out over the weekend.

“That doesn’t mean you can go out and socialize,” Walsh said. “If you think you’re immune to this illness, you’re wrong.”

“I don’t want to issue fines, and I don’t want to send police officers out” to enforce the distancing, Walsh said. “But we are prepared for those steps. . . . As mayor, I will do whatever it takes to protect the city of Boston.”

Nestor Ramos, Robert Weisman, Martin Finucane, and Travis Andersen contributed to this report.


Matt Stout can be reached at matt.stout@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @mattpstout Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz. Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi.