‘Gaston County is getting hit hard’: Outbreaks reported at 5 congregate living facilities

GASTON COUNTY, N.C. — After going months without a nursing home outbreak, Gaston County suddenly has five. County health officials are investigating outbreaks at five different congregate living facilities in the area.

Officials said these outbreaks are the first congregate COVID-19 outbreaks in Gaston County since the virus began.

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The Harvard Global Health Institute mapped out global hotspots based on positive tests per population, and Gaston County is one of the highest in the state -- on the same risk level as some areas getting national attention for positive rates.

Brian Center Health and Rehabilitation in Gastonia reported 16 residents and two staff members as testing positive. Representatives for the Brian Center said in a written statement that their clients are their priority and that “this is an ongoing fight and one that we are prepared to keep fighting.”

In Cherryville, eight residents and two staff members tested positive at Peak Resources.

Holy Angels in Belmont reported one resident and one staff member tested positive for coronavirus.

“We are working with such a vulnerable medically fragile population,” said Regina Moody, the President and CEO of Holy Angels. “They have many other challenges.”

Staff interacting with patients at Holy Angels are now expected to wear both N-95 masks and surgical masks. Before the outbreak, they only needed surgical masks.

“It’s a tremendous challenge to our entire Holy Angels community,” Moody told Channel 9.

Carolina Care, another facility in Cherryville, said two residents and and four staff members tested positive.

In Gastonia, Alexandria Place reported four residents and one staff member as testing positive for COVID-19.

Gaston County Public Health Director Steve Eaton said each of the facilities where an outbreak was reported has taken the necessary steps to prevent the virus from spreading.

“These facilities have been good partners with us in working with our communicable disease team to ensure that the right steps are taken and that residents and staff members are protected,” Eaton said. “These facilities house some of our most vulnerable people, so we know outbreaks here can have an even more dramatic impact.”

An outbreak is defined as having at least two confirmed COVID-19 cases. Health officials said there are two other facilities in the area that have had one resident test positive and they are waiting on results to see if other residents or staff members have been affected. In total, 42 positive cases have been reported in assisted living facilities in the last week.

On Monday, Mark Parkinson, the president of the American Health Care Association and National Center For Assisted Living, wrote a letter to governors across the country asking for faster, more reliable onsite testing and more protective gear for workers.

“Nursing homes and assisted living communities need additional support from federal and state public health agencies in order to protect residents and caregivers,” he said.

Parkinson said studies show a direct correlation between a spike in cases in the community and a spike in cases at facilities like these.

Over the weekend, there were 219 new positive COVID-19 cases reported in Gaston County.

Health officials held a news conference Wednesday to share more details. Gaston County reporter Ken Lemon was at that meeting -- the first COVID-19 news conference in the county without elected officials.

In the past, news conferences in the county have been political and not always in favor of solutions health officials feel are needed, including wearing masks in public.

“Gaston County is getting hit hard,” said public health specialist Steve Eaton.

The numbers are alarming. Gaston County saw 219 new cases over the weekend, 43 new cases in nursing homes in the last week, and the rate of positive cases has doubled since May.

Mobile testing sites are also reporting high numbers, a percent positive of 18%.

"It's climbing and climbing," said resident Lisa Lipscomb.

She is one of many who came to get tested Wednesday. She had no symptoms, but she is a healthcare worker concerned about her clients -- and her granddaughter and pregnant daughter who live with her.

"I'm out there every day and my kids are not out there like that," Lipscomb said.

She wears her masks all the time, even when she is not working. Experts say not enough people are doing the same.

"Every decision we make has an impact on the community," said Eaton.

That is why they brought doctors and the county's top health specialists to plead with people to social distance, wear masks and to isolate yourself if you are sick.

"I'm very confident we can (stop the rising numbers), but that is why we are here today, to get the community's attention," Eaton said.

Doctors said that hospitals in the county still have the space needed to handle a surge. The head of CaroMont said they have handled COVID-19 patients from 3 months old to those in their early 90s.

Officials said 10% percent of those who have tested positive in Gaston County ended up on ventilators, and 15 people have died.

The county is not looking at adding restrictions to limit contact, they’re just asking residents to cooperate.

“We need everyone in our community to take this seriously,” Eaton pleaded.