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More than 41 percent of state coronavirus deaths come from long-term care facilities

New data from the state show just how many residents of nursing homes and other facilities have died.

Members of the Massachusetts National Guard remove their hazmat suits after leaving Alliance Health at Marina Bay. The National Guard was deployed to Quincy to assist nursing homes with COVID-19 testing.
Members of the Massachusetts National Guard remove their hazmat suits after leaving Alliance Health at Marina Bay. The National Guard was deployed to Quincy to assist nursing homes with COVID-19 testing.Stan Grossfeld/ Globe Staff

The new coronavirus has caused the deaths of at least 247 residents of Massachusetts long-term care facilities, a grim toll that accounted for more than 41 percent of all deaths in the state linked to the disease, according to new data released Friday.

The disclosure was made amid a series of dire warnings Friday from Governor Charlie Baker, who said officials expect that a new surge in COVID-19 cases could sicken 2,500 residents each day for the next 10 days, and possibly beyond.

“Our health care system will be stretched like never before,” Baker said at a news conference.

Nursing homes across the state had been reporting for weeks increases in infections and deaths, but the state Department of Public Health had not released detailed data showing the full toll in long-term care facilities, which serve some of the frailest patients, including those who need assistance eating, dressing, and washing.

The number of long-term care patients and staffers infected with COVID-19 jumped by 491 cases on Friday to 2,124, the largest one-day increase in new infections to date, according to state figures. And there is at least one COVID-19 case at 176 long-term care facilities statewide. Baker said there are about 1,000 such facilities across the state.

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As the outbreak spreads, long-term care facilities have struggled to provide their staff with personal protective gear, while workers fall ill at a quickening pace. Meanwhile, access to testing remains a challenge at many facilities.

“The continuing rise in the number of fatal cases among the 38,000 frail elderly and disabled residents under our care is devastating to our residents, families, and staff who are courageously battling the most horrific pandemic in our lifetimes,” said Tara Gregorio, president of the Massachusetts Senior Care Association.

The organization called on the state, hospitals, and others to expand COVID-19 testing to include symptomatic and asymptomatic residents and staff, to equip workers with personal protective equipment, and to boost their wages.

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At Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley in Littleton, where 10 residents with the virus have died, its parent company said Friday that 75 of its 204 employees were out sick and that 14 have been infected with COVID-19. Town officials have accused the facility of not being transparent about the outbreak there, a claim the facility’s parent company denies.

Last week, all patients there were tested for the virus through a mobile testing program offered by the state, but employees were asked to seek out a doctor for testing.

“Due to ongoing limitations in availability of testing, we do not have a mechanism to request that all staff be tested,” Life Care Center of Nashoba Valley said in a statement. “While we have been able to bring additional staff from other facilities, this drop in the level of staffing adds increased pressure on the facility.”

In the past two weeks, the confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Massachusetts have been concentrated increasingly in people aged 60 or older, according to a Globe analysis of demographic data released by the state. As of Thursday, the overwhelming majority of the coronavirus-related deaths have been of people aged 70 or older, many with underlying health conditions. Only 1 percent of fatalities in Massachusetts have been residents under age 50.

On March 31, the state launched a COVID-19 mobile testing program at long-term care facilities with the Massachusetts National Guard. So far, the program has collected samples at about 150 sites and expanded its reach to assisted-living facilities and group homes, according to Marylou Sudders, the secretary of health and human services.

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The extent of the crisis in nursing homes, rest homes, and skilled nursing facilities remains difficult to measure because of spotty reporting on outbreaks and testing limits. The state has yet to reveal the names of the facilities with outbreaks, and some relatives of patients have complained that they can’t get information about whether loved ones have been exposed to the virus.

The struggle some families have experienced getting information has been compounded by visitor restrictions placed on long-term care facilities during the second week of March, meaning families have gone weeks without seeing loved ones.

On Tuesday, state Representative Ruth Balser filed a bill that would require the state to report the weekly toll of COVID-19 deaths in long-term care facilities. The legislation immediately secured the backing of House Speaker Robert DeLeo.

Balser on Friday applauded the move to reveal how many patients in long-term care facilities have died, but pushed the state to release more detailed data.

“The importance of the transparency is to lead us to problem solve, because it is pretty startling to see the number of deaths among older adults in these facilities,” she said.

Elizabeth Dugan, a gerontology professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston who studies nursing homes, said the new data will be helpful for studying the outbreak and working to curb it. Though more information, Dugan said, is necessary.

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“Anything where people are packed in densely together, if they’re older the risk is so much higher because it’s so transmissible,” she said.

On Friday, the city of Cambridge announced it was directing all nursing homes to collect samples from all staff and patients to be tested by the Broad Institute, a step that goes beyond the voluntary state testing program.

City leaders issued the directive to ensure all seven nursing homes in the city participated, the Cambridge Public Health Department said. As of Thursday, there were 24 COVID-19 cases in those facilities, but no deaths, the department said.

Robert Weisman of the Globe staff contributed to this report.


Laura Crimaldi can be reached at laura.crimaldi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @lauracrimaldi. Laura Krantz can be reached at laura.krantz@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @laurakrantz.