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Suburban Philadelphia nursing homes are loaded with COVID cases and paralyzing the economy | Maria Panaritis

Bucks, Chester, Delaware, and Montgomery County nursing homes are brewing with coronavirus. It’s taking a costly toll.

Signs of encouragement on Wednesday at Fair Acres Geriatric Center, a 600-plus-bed, 24-hour long-term care facility in Delaware County, where COVID-19 cases have meant loved ones outside may not visit loved ones inside.
Signs of encouragement on Wednesday at Fair Acres Geriatric Center, a 600-plus-bed, 24-hour long-term care facility in Delaware County, where COVID-19 cases have meant loved ones outside may not visit loved ones inside.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

A coronavirus calamity is unfolding at suburban nursing and personal-care homes. It threatens not just human life but livelihoods.

Nearly 4,000 residents have contracted COVID-19, and more than 900 have died, in facilities in the four counties outside of Philadelphia, according to the state Department of Health. That total is three times the number of cases emanating from congregate-care facilities in the 1.5-million-person-strong city next door.

The numbers are shocking. And they help explain why officials in two of those counties sought changes this week in how the Wolf administration will calculate whether to allow an easing of stay-home orders that have sent more than 1.6 million Pennsylvanians into unemployment over the last two months.

State Health Secretary Rachel Levine rebuffed the request by Bucks and Delaware County officials to separate nursing-home coronavirus data from what is happening in the population at large.

That means that even if infection rates decline significantly in the overall population, but remain high in long-term-care facilities, these counties may remain largely economically paralyzed for the foreseeable future.

With no clear alternative in these counties, no vaccine or treatment, and so little known generally about the disease that is holding the globe hostage, there was frustration when I interviewed two prominent officials Tuesday about the tough situation in Delaware County.

The largest nursing facility in Delaware County is owned by the county: Fair Acres, with about 600 residents spanning many ages and a staff of more than 1,200 on a 210-acre campus in Middletown Township, near Media. Yet it is but one of several dozen with coronavirus cases inside.

“We think it makes sense to look at our population as two distinct segments,” Delaware County Council President Brian Zidek said. “We advocate for that. The governor can listen to us or not; we don’t have any control over that.”

When officials made the request on Monday, about three out of every four deaths in those two counties came from people living in care homes. High percentages of COVID-related deaths in Chester and Montgomery Counties were in care homes, too.

» READ MORE: Over 9 days, Bucks County saw 100 coronavirus deaths — most in nursing homes

State Sen. Tim Kearney of Swarthmore suggested that efforts to persuade the Wolf administration to make a more nuanced calculation might gain traction as counties elsewhere in Pennsylvania open and officials learn how the virus is or is not being contained, and through what measures.

“I’m still hopeful there’s a middle ground, where as we learn more we can start to make adjustments in the criteria,” Kearney said. “The governor’s got a very difficult job.”

On Friday, 24 counties in north-central and northwestern Pennsylvania will move into the “yellow” phase of relief from coronavirus restrictions under the governor’s guidelines. One of the criteria for reopening is that counties have fewer than 50 new reported cases per 100,000 residents over 14 days.

Delaware County appears far from qualifying for similar privileges. It had 104 new reported cases and six deaths on Tuesday, and 70 new cases with 62 deaths the day before that — nowhere near what the state would like to see.

“We’re a long way from that,” Zidek said.

» ASK US: Do you have a question about the coronavirus and how it affects your health, work and life? Ask our reporters.

The infection and fatality numbers in these care facilities is jaw-dropping.

In Delaware County, with a population roughly a third of Philadelphia’s, nearly as many residents of long-term-care facilities have become infected or died of COVID-19 as in similar settings in Philly. Of 42 homes affected by the coronavirus, 1,027 residents and 150 workers have contracted the disease, and 237 have died.

“It’s the combination of the two most vulnerable demographics we have, between the residents and the employees,” Kearney said. “That’s what makes it so scary.”

In Montgomery County, 80 affected homes contain 1,509 infected residents and 49 infected workers, accounting for 355 deaths.

In 48 affected homes in Bucks County, 869 residents and 163 employees have been infected, with a total of 216 deaths.

In 31 affected homes in Chester County, 498 residents and 57 employees have contracted COVID-19, leading to 129 deaths.

That’s 3,903 infected residents and 973 deaths in the four counties. In all of Philadelphia, 1,398 residents of 53 homes and seven workers have contracted COVID-19, for a total of 261 deaths.

With so many workers leaving those facilities once their shifts end, it’s unsurprising that state public health officials were reluctant to separate case counts. Workers fan out into their communities, carrying whatever contagion has left the nursing homes with them.

The lockdown that began about eight weeks ago has curbed the spread of the deadly virus and kept health systems from being overwhelmed. But it has come at the cost of shuttered businesses and massive unemployment. Zidek’s own business, the council chairman said, is among those suffering financially.

“If there was an easy path out of this,” he said, “I think we all would take it.”

A good starting point in the absence of such a magic pill: Flood these facilities with resources. What other choice do we have? The cost of failure is too high either way.