Six of the coronavirus deaths recorded in Clatsop County this summer were tied to care homes, which were identified early in the pandemic as among the most vulnerable to the spread of the virus.

Five of the deaths were residents at Clatsop Care Memory Community in Warrenton, where 37 virus cases have been reported since early August. The other death was a resident at Neawanna By The Sea in Seaside, where there have been four virus cases since mid-August.

Clatsop Care Memory Community

Several local coronavirus deaths have been tied to care homes.

County leaders said in August that the Public Health Department was focusing resources on the most vulnerable, including residents of nursing homes and other congregate care facilities, as virus case counts and hospitalizations surged because of the delta variant. But the county declined to provide details about the factors driving local outbreaks or why care homes were at particular risk at the time.

The virus deaths at care homes were disclosed Thursday night by the Oregon Health Authority in a weekly outbreak report.

Hannah Olson, the administrator at Clatsop Care Memory Community, which is part of the Clatsop Care Health District, said four of the five deaths involved residents who were unvaccinated against the virus.

Of the virus cases, she said, 26 involved residents and 11 were staff. She said the majority of residents and staff were vaccinated.

It is unclear how people were exposed, Olson said, but the facility’s awareness of the outbreak began when a resident and staff member tested positive at the same time.

At the moment, she said, “everyone is doing very well, and we’ll continue to do our best to keep these people safe in their home.”

At Neawanna By The Sea, the resident who died from the virus was vaccinated. The assisted living facility said the three other virus cases involved staff — two were vaccinated, one was unvaccinated.

Gov. Kate Brown has required health care workers, including nursing home staff, to get vaccinated by Oct. 18.

“Many long-term care and nursing facilities still have a proportion of staff who are not vaccinated — an issue seen nationwide,” Margo Lalich, the county’s interim public health director, and Tom Bennett, a county spokesman, said in an email. “Residents of these facilities, even if vaccinated, are more vulnerable to serious illness from COVID-19 ‘breakthrough’ cases because of the underlying conditions that often come with advanced age.

“Also, these individuals would likely have been vaccinated early on, and their immunity may have waned. Unvaccinated visitors also put residents at risk. Visitors may or may not be family.”

Clatsop County has recorded 24 virus deaths during the pandemic — 14 since July.

Vulnerable

Since the start of the pandemic, care homes were identified as vulnerable to COVID-19. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the communal nature of nursing homes and long-term care facilities and the fact that they serve older adults who often have underlying medical conditions put people at increased risk of infection and severe illness from the virus.

In Oregon, the state restricted visitor access to care homes for much of the pandemic as a precaution.

In January, the health authority disclosed an outbreak involving six virus cases at Clatsop Retirement Village, an assisted living facility which operates under the umbrella of Clatsop Care Health District. But local care homes did not otherwise emerge in outbreak reports until this summer.

The state discloses outbreaks at care homes after three virus cases or one death. In the outbreak report released Thursday night, the health authority said there had been 17,432 virus cases and 1,468 deaths tied to congregate care settings statewide.

The weekly outbreak report also disclosed three virus cases at the Suzanne Elise Assisted Living Facility in Seaside since August. Administrators at the care home could not be reached for comment.

The state also listed an outbreak this summer at Columbia Memorial Hospital in Astoria at 10 virus cases, down from 12 cases, as the state initially reported.

‘A difficult situation’

Clatsop Care Health & Rehabilitation, which is also part of the Clatsop Care Health District, continues to dispute the health authority’s figure of 10 virus cases since August.

“That number’s not correct,” said Clarissa Johnson, an administrator at the Astoria facility, adding that the outbreak should be six — one resident and five staff — as previously reported.

The facility has been trying to resolve the discrepancy with the health authority, Johnson said.

The state conducted a survey at the facility and identified no issues with infection control measures, she said.

The resident who tested positive for the virus was vaccinated, she said. Of the five infected staff, two were vaccinated, one was partially vaccinated and two were unvaccinated.

There is a high vaccination rate among residents and staff, she said. But the county’s virus case count is such that her facility can’t allow visitors into the building. “It’s just this really awful sense of déjà vu,” Johnson said.

When the pandemic started, outbreaks among vulnerable populations at nursing homes were a focus of news coverage around the world. Now, she said, Clatsop Care Health & Rehabilitation is “very quietly dealing with a difficult situation here that I think has largely been forgotten about in the last year.”

Over the past month, the staff have had to ask residents to stay in their rooms for a stretch, and tell them, “‘We’re really sorry, but I know a month ago you were able to visit with your family member and hug them, but we have to tell you now that you can’t.’”