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State data demonstrates vulnerability of nursing home residents to COVID-19

National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases Rocky Mountain Laboratories

One-eighth of all the COVID-19 deaths in Monroe County were residents at a single nursing home: St. John’s Home in Rochester, according to data published Friday by the New York state health department.

As the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 grew at St. John’s, the home expanded testing for the novel coronavirus, finding it in several residents who had no symptoms of the disease.

At least eight people have died of COVID-19 at the home, according to the state’s data.

In a letter to residents and their families earlier this week, St. John’s acknowledged the risk of caring for older residents.

“The terrifying truth is that nursing homes cannot implement the single most effective solution to stop the spread of COVID-19, which is to require social distancing,” Charlie Runyon, the home’s president and CEO, wrote.

“Social and physical distancing is in direct opposition to the delivery of critical care,” wrote Runyon.

“To help someone sit up who has no strength, to brush someone’s teeth who has forgotten how to do so, to bring food to someone’s mouth on a spoon who cannot self-feed, to hold someone up who can no longer walk unassisted -- is care that cannot be provided from six feet away.”

A spokesperson for the home said everyone who tests positive for the coronavirus is being moved into isolated housing units.

Nursing home residents across Monroe County account for more than a quarter of the county’s total COVID-19 deaths, despite representing less than 1% of the county’s population.

Credit Brett Dahlberg / WXXI News
Monroe County's demographic data show that black residents are less than a quarter of the population but more than half of the people on a ventilator for COVID-19 treatment.

The county’s latest data -- including two new deaths reported Friday, for a total of 64 -- showed that another high-risk group is its black residents.

Black people make up 16% of Monroe County’s population, but 20% of its COVID-19 deaths and more than 50% of the people currently on ventilators in intensive care units, according to the county’s figures.

In cities across the country, similar trends are repeating: Black people are bearing the brunt of the epidemic.

In Monroe County, black residents were more likely to work in essential jobs that prevent social distancing, more likely to have underlying health conditions, and less likely to have health insurance than white residents, said Jerome Underwood, the president and CEO of the Rochester nonprofit Action for a Better Community.

“What we are describing, it has a name,” Underwood said. “This is what institutional racism looks like.”

Brett was the health reporter and a producer at WXXI News. He has a master’s degree from the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism.
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