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updated: 3/9/2020 7:55 AM

Some nursing homes restricting visits due to coronavirus fears

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Assisted living and nursing facilities are being urged by an industry group to restrict visits by anyone who's ill to protect their vulnerable patients from the COVID-19 virus.

The American Health Care Association, the nation's largest organization of long-term and post-acute care providers, also recommends its members monitor visitors and employees to ensure they're washing their hands or using alcohol-based hand sanitizers and covering coughs as best as possible.

"Those things are very effective," said Dr. David Gifford, the group's chief medical officer.

Administrators at suburban nursing homes and assisted living centers are taking the advice seriously.

Sunrise Senior Living, which has facilities in Barrington, Buffalo Grove, Naperville, Schaumburg and elsewhere, has instructed employees and would-be visitors to stay away if they're experiencing symptoms of the illness or have traveled to nations experiencing severe outbreaks.

"We have strong infection control and emergency preparedness programs in place and will continue to take necessary precautions to help protect the safety and well-being of our residents and team members," the company said in a statement to the Daily Herald.

Why the elderly?

The elderly, infants and people with compromised immune systems are most susceptible to the new coronavirus, which has caused thousands of deaths globally. A vaccine hasn't yet been created.

Older people generally are more prone to infections because their immune systems are weaker. They also may have other health conditions -- including cancer, diabetes and thinning skin -- making them susceptible to infection. Some medications can further suppress defenses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

According to the health care association, more than 15,400 skilled nursing centers operate in the U.S., serving abut 1.3 million people. More than 700 such facilities operate in Illinois, serving more than 65,000 patients.

Additionally, about 28,000 assisted living centers are in the U.S., including 495 in Illinois. Up-to-date population estimates for those centers weren't available.

Because the COVID-19 virus spreads through droplets in the air, much like influenza, the association recommends nursing facilities use strategies known to reduce the spread of the flu and other respiratory viruses. They include:

• Ensuring employees and visitors wash their hands or use cleansing gels.

• Reviewing isolation procedures with staff.

• Considering putting ill patients in the same room or wing to prevent infecting healthy people.

• Reminding employees, contractors and volunteers to stay home if they're ill.

Facilities should post notices urging people who are sick not to visit, the association said. Employees should work with families to communicate with patients in other ways, such as by phone, email or a mobile video app.

Illinois' response

The Illinois Department of Public Health, which is leading the state's response to the outbreak, also has advice for care centers about the virus.

"We urge long-term care facilities to review their disease outbreak plans and begin taking preparedness steps to respond in the event we start seeing community spread," spokeswoman Melaney Arnold said.

For example, nursing facilities should limit visitors, post signs with instructions for hand hygiene and cough etiquette, and make sure tissues, wastebaskets and hand sanitizer are readily available, Arnold said.

Centers also should observe new patients for developing respiratory symptoms, Arnold said.

More precautions

Officials with HCR ManorCare, which operates nursing and assisted living facilities in Arlington Heights, Libertyville, Elk Grove Village and other suburbs, as well as in more than 20 other states, are implementing those precautions and more.

In communities with confirmed COVID-19 cases, they're asking anyone who has had physical contact with a person infected with the virus or suspected to be infected not to visit patients at ManorCare within 14 days of that contact.

Likewise, the company is requesting anyone who's traveled to or from China, South Korea, Iran, Italy, Japan or any other region with sustained COVID-19 outbreaks -- or anyone who's been around someone who's made such a journey -- not to visit within 14 days of that trip or contact.

People with unexplained fevers or fevers higher than 101.5 degrees who also have traveled internationally within the past 14 days should stay away from ManorCare facilities, too. So should people diagnosed with pneumonia or lower respiratory tract infections in the past 14 days.

In a statement on its website, the company said it may require further monitoring, such as temperature readings for all visitors, employees and patients in higher-risk communities.

"I'm sure some of our checks and balances might seem inconvenient," said Julie Beckert, assistant vice president of marketing and communications for HCR ManorCare, "but it's the right thing to do."