Updated Nov. 18 at 9:50 a.m.
Taos Living Center's administrator and staff are continuing to navigate an outbreak of coronavirus but have sustained significant losses and seen their infection rate skyrocket despite their efforts. It is the kind of outbreak nursing homes across the state are battling against.
In the time since Administrator Dave Armijo reported that two residents had died and 34 residents and staff were infected on Thursday (Nov. 14), five more residents have died and positive cases have soared to 86. Forty-nine residents and 37 staff have been infected, with twelve residents and 20 staff in stages of recovery, Armijo said.
Until the outbreak, the center had 69 residents and 110 staff, Armijo said.
Concerned residents, friends, family and the wider Taos community want to know: How did the infection get into the facility in the first place?
"If I speculate I would say an asymptomatic staff member," Armijo said Tuesday evening (Nov. 17). "The county and state were on the verge of a major outbreak. The county was at 4.9 percent positivity rate. We were very lucky to identify the staff member in our surveillance testing. Unfortunately the turn around time for TriCore labs was 5 days. All skilled nursing facilities are required to test with TriCore labs. We would have preferred to partner locally."
Breanna Anderson, a spokesperson for the New Mexico Aging and Long-Term Services Department, said that the "vast majority of the time it is brought in by staff, who have to provide for their families, get groceries, and keep up their health – all of these activities are necessary, but each also incorporates risk, especially when they're around fellow community members who are not wearing masks."
Armijo said the Taos Living Center staff member was tested on Oct. 28, but the result was not received until Nov. 2. Anderson said last week that an initial group of 17 residents also tested positive on Nov. 2, followed by 13 more staff members who tested positive from Nov. 3-7.
The New Mexico Department of Health has reported COVID-19 cases among residents and staff at 105 other New Mexico nursing home or long-term care facilities in the last 28 days, according to an update Tuesday. The state, however, appears to be lagging behind when it comes to tracking deaths, at least in Taos County.
On Wednesday (Nov. 18), the state reported a ninth death in Taos County, man in his 70s who had been hospitalized with underlying conditions after developing COVID-19, the disease that stems from the novel coronavirus. Due to healthcare privacy laws, however, it's anyone's guess whether he may have been one of the seven Taos Living Center residents so far to have died of the disease. An eighth death was reported on Nov. 17, also in a man in his 70s, but in both cases, it's anyone's guess whether either man was a resident at the nursing home due to healthcare privacy laws. "I'm not sure if the 70-year-old man was a resident of TLC," Armijo said. The sixth death was reported more than a week prior to that, on Nov. 7, when a man in his 50s died from complications related to the virus.
According to the state, no one else in Taos County has died of the disease, despite confirmations from local officials of the seven deaths at Taos Living Center and Amarante Chacón, the late owner of Mante's Chow Cart in Taos who also recently died of the disease. An email sent to a spokesperson with the department asking about the apparent discrepancy remained unanswered as of Tuesday evening.
When an infection is reported at a facility, Anderson said "an Infection Control Company (contracted by the state) advises the facility on how to apply comprehensive infection control practices and provides additional recommendations for containment of the virus and the safety of residents."
The New Mexico Aging and Long-Term Services Department meets weekly with nursing home administrators, she added, and provides monitoring, PPE, testing, staffing support and "access to our experts when the facilities have questions."
Armijo said he has hired new nurses and added additional physical and occupational therapy to avoid any shortfalls in staffing.
Taos Living Center's current crisis has prompted a response from other local healthcare providers, like Holy Cross Medical Center, which has provided nurses in delivering a "higher level of care" onsite and is helping to treat some patients at its facility.
Bill Patten, chief executive director at the hospital, said Holy Cross was treating 10 patients who had tested positive for the virus as of midnight on Tuesday, with one patient whose test was still pending. Seven of the infected patients are being treated in the hospital's medical and surgical area, while three were being treated in the intensive care unit.
"No patients in the hospital are on a ventilator although three are on high-flow oxygen therapy and two others are on a lower-flow therapy device," he said.
The hospital also received and discharged eight patients on Tuesday. None of the patients the hospital was treating on Tuesday had been transferred to other medical facilities as of midnight.
Armijo said he wanted the public to know "we love our residents and the team considers them family," he wrote in an email on Tuesday.
Any visits to the facility, including "window visits," are not allowed until further notice, Armijo said.