In dealing with a new illness such as the COVID-19 pandemic, nursing homes and care centres can be a recipe for disaster, according to one University of Alberta expert.

Donna Wilson, a nursing professor at the U of A, said early efforts made to prevent infections from getting into nursing homes and long-term care facilities were important. But she added that once an infection does get in, the crowding, the sometimes low number of staff, and the older residents inside who are vulnerable to illnesses and infections create ideal conditions for the disease to spread.

“This is where COVID would hit the hardest and be the most serious,” Wilson told Edmonton AM on Wednesday.

“To survive COVID, you either have to have had such a small dose of the virus that your body wasn’t really overwhelmed by it and you have to have enough good health to be able to overcome it.”

The Good Samaritan Southgate Care Centre in Edmonton has been the site of a recent COVID-19 outbreak in Edmonton.

Fifteen residents at the centre have died.

The facility has 184 residents with 48 active cases among residents and 16 among staff as of Tuesday afternoon.

Alberta Health Services is working with the centre to offer oversight and leadership. The centre is waiting on results for COVID-19 testing completed for a second time last week on all asymptomatic residents.

The news came after a report in June from the Canadian Institute for Health Information showed Alberta had the fourth-highest proportion of COVID-19 deaths at long-term care facilities among Canadian provinces.

The long-term care facility deaths account for 73 per cent of total COVID-19 deaths in the province.

In some ways, it’s blind luck the number of COVID-19 cases in nursing homes hasn’t been higher in Alberta, Wilson said. Something as simple as a planeload of people coming into Edmonton and Calgary back in the spring and infecting people in these major centres could have made this worse.

She added it’s not a surprise the initial COVID-19 hotspots were care facilities in Calgary, which is closer to the United States border and has an airport with more international travel than Edmonton.

Wilson said her hat’s off to all the nursing homes that have kept COVID-19 out by not allowing visitors, including the one where her 96-year-old stepfather lives.

Once a disease gets into these facilities, Wilson said it can spread like wildfire through shared living, eating and working spaces.

“Nursing homes, the design of them, is a recipe for disaster in a pandemic,” Wilson said.

Measures taken to reduce the amount of people who can visit care facilities in Alberta, has been isolating and difficult for residents and their families, Wilson said, but also extremely important in preventing COVID-19’s spread.

But she said Alberta’s plan for long-term care facilities still needs improvements.

Wilson would like to see weekly COVID-19 tests for staff and residents in each of these centres.

Funding for staff is something many Alberta facilities are worrying about, Wilson said, especially if COVID-19 will be around for a few more months.

“The funding to nursing homes only permits a certain amount of staff. And this is something that is really going to seriously have to be looked at.”

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