Bucks County officials on Thursday pledged to test every resident at Neshaminy Manor, the county-owned nursing home, as the COVID-19 death count there continued to soar, part of a surge in senior-citizen deaths countywide.
County Coroner Meredith J. Buck said 22 residents at the county home who died had tested positive for COVID-19, in addition to seven presumed to have died from the virus. Test results for four other deaths are pending.
David Damsker, head of the county’s Department of Health, put the death toll at Neshaminy Manor, in Warrington, at 20 but noted that his agency only counts deaths for which testing has been done.
Damsker said there is “no question” that the vast majority of coronavirus deaths in Bucks County come from long-term-care facilities for seniors. Data from the state Department of Health say 71% of the county’s COVID-19 deaths as of Wednesday were people living in nursing homes.
The county reported 20 new deaths Wednesday, the spike at the end of a nine-day tally of 100 new fatalities. That group accounts for more than half of the total deaths from COVID-19 in the county since the first fatality was recorded on March 28.
“We are absolutely seeing deaths, and it’s not just one facility,” Damsker said earlier Thursday. “I wouldn’t call any one facility a hot spot. I would say any facility that has cases has a potential for death. And we’re working with them to do everything we can to prevent infection.”
All of Wednesday’s reported deaths were senior citizens — the youngest 69, the oldest 93. And since April 3 — the date that the county started making age data available — 96% of Bucks County’s COVID-19 deaths have been people 60 or older, according to an Inquirer analysis of county data.
Damsker said Thursday that 61 senior-care facilities in the county have outbreaks of COVID-19. Additionally, he estimated that half of the cases in the county are from residents of those facilities, or their staff.
The county has been testing all of the residents at Neshaminy Manor who show symptoms of the virus, he said, and has been slowly increasing the number of administered tests as supplies become available.
County spokesperson Larry King said the discrepancy between the coroner’s COVID-19 death toll at Neshaminy and the Health Department’s was because the department does not include “presumptive deaths” in its official counts.
“In the past, there have been shortages of testing kits, and some people may have died of various causes before they could be tested for COVID,” King said. “But again, we don’t record ‘probable’ cases as COVID deaths in our records.”
The county plans to begin “mass testing” every resident in the 360-bed facility in the coming days, Damsker said.
“This is a real problem, and this is happening in places where we’ve tried really hard to stop it,” he said.
The numbers follow a trend seen across Pennsylvania and beyond.
About two-thirds of the state’s known coronavirus-related deaths have been residents of long-term-care facilities, according to state Department of Health data. Pennsylvania has one of the oldest state populations in the country, and about 126,000 people living in nursing homes and assisted-living facilities. Nationally, at least 10,000 nursing home residents have died, according to published reports.
Repeatedly, advocates and families of long-term-care residents complain of a lack of information from inside the homes. Most homes started barring visitors, including state inspectors, from entering in mid-March.
State and county officials have refused to reveal how many cases and deaths are in specific facilities, despite nearby states, including New York, New Jersey, and Delaware, sharing such information.
Kandy Schreffler, a regional ombudsperson overseeing Bucks County for the state Department of Aging, said she has found it difficult to investigate complaints at long-term-care facilities. Most of her work, she said, has to be conducted over the phone or through the mail.
“It’s really important for people to know that we are still here,” she said. “At the beginning of this, I was concerned. But we’ve relied on some creative ways to stay in touch with residents who’ve reached out to us.”
Complaints from nursing home residents and their families run the gamut, but the most frequent issues, she said, involve a lack of communication. Some facilities have limited number of phones for resident use, and families with loved ones across the region have reported issues to the state of going days without being able to reach anyone inside.
“People are concerned. They’re not there, don’t have eyes on their loved ones, they don’t have the day-to-day contact with them,” she said. “They don’t have information where COVID is in certain homes, and we don’t have that either.”
Graphics editor John Duchneskie contributed to this article.