Vista Living Care has a simple solution when it comes to addressing symptoms of illness among patients and staff at its retirement and memory care centers.

“You assume everything is COVID,” said Luka Nachtrab, Vista Living Care president.

The company’s Vista Hermosa Assisted Living, a retirement home in Santa Fe, reported its first employee infection Oct. 16. So far, the facility has no other confirmed cases of COVID-19 but is still awaiting results of a second round of patient and staff tests.

It is one of three long-term care facilities in Santa Fe that have reported coronavirus cases in the past seven days. One retirement home, Kingston Residence, has suffered an outbreak that has led to three residents’ deaths.

As coronavirus numbers have surged to record levels in Santa Fe and statewide in the past two weeks — rising to a seven-day average daily count of 599 cases this week from 234 on Oct. 1 — health officials and operators of nursing homes and assisted living centers also fear a rise in caseloads and deaths at facilities where chronically ill and elderly residents are highly vulnerable to the illness.

“How things go in the nursing homes is going to parallel how things go in communities,” New Mexico Human Services Secretary David Scrase said in a virtual news conference Thursday, when asked about the possibility of outbreaks. “And the answer is yes. ... We are seeing upticks in cases in nursing facilities.”

COVID-19 outbreaks took an alarming toll on patients at long-term care homes in the early months of the pandemic, particularly in areas of the state hit hardest by the virus, such as Gallup and Farmington in northwestern New Mexico, and in Albuquerque.

But the number of cases and deaths at such facilities has slowed. Since Oct. 1, 145 patients and 142 workers at long-term care facilities have contracted COVID-19, and 14 patients have died. The total number of deaths of patients in what is often called congregate care (307) has dropped to about 32 percent of the state’s overall toll (953) from a rate of more than 40 percent in June.

“They are not to the level that they were before,” Scrase said of COVID-19 numbers in congregate care. “I would certainly hope they don’t get to the level that they were before. We are doing fairly aggressive testing in nursing homes.”

Breanna Anderson, a spokeswoman for the state Aging and Long-Term Services Department, wrote in an email that guidelines for nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have helped slow infection rates. The guidelines determine when and where businesses can allow for visitors and communal dining, as well as indoor and outdoor activities.

Chief among its guidelines is a program based on the testing positivity rate of the county where a facility is located that determines the frequency of tests administered. The department also requires 100 percent testing of residents and staff at a place that has incurred at least one positive coronavirus test.

“Seeing these trends encourages us that we are on the right track with stopping the spread of the virus in Long Term Care facilities,” Anderson wrote.

She also acknowledged community spread has been a driver in the recent spike.

Kingston Residence of Santa Fe had avoided any patient or worker infections until this week’s outbreak. As of Oct. 16, it had reported confirmed cases for one worker and one resident. By Thursday, the company’s website said, 15 residents and 10 staff members had contracted the virus. The website did not mention the three deaths reported by state health officials.

El Castillo, a retirement facility on East Alameda Street, on Tuesday reported to the state that a patient and a staff member were infected. Al Jahner, CEO of El Castillo, did not return phone messages seeking comment on the cases.

Officials at Kingston Healthcare, the parent company of the Santa Fe home, also did not respond to phone calls or emails.

Nachtrab said Vista Hermosa responded quickly when a worker reported she had been feeling ill during her days off and then tested positive for COVID-19. Everyone was tested last week, he said, and tests for all patients and staff came back negative. The results of a second round of tests this week have not yet come back.

“We have taken it very seriously,” Nachtrab said. “All of the [personal protective] equipment has been worn from the very beginning of the outbreak, and we increased our level of safety, wearing masks and shields, prior to our one employee testing positive.

“We promote a culture of transparency,” he added, “and the last thing we want on our shoulders is bringing it to our home.”

Nachtrab said he reminds his staff of the importance of being conscientious about off-duty activities when it comes to keeping COVID-19 out of Vista Living Care facilities, which include centers in Santa Fe and Las Cruces that house patients with Alzheimer’s disease and other types of dementia.

He is even recording a video for workers to emphasize that.

“It’s a constant part of our days, to just reiterate the responsibility we have,” Nachtrab said.

“The elders and the families depend on us to keep them safe. We are depending on each other to keep each other safe because we all know people who are vulnerable,” he added. “We all have elderly that we may live with or see. It is a really huge responsibility and we remind everyone about that.”

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