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'I can make it to the next day': Nursing home COVID deaths have surged to record highs. For those on the inside, vaccine rollout provides hope

Nine months ago an outbreak killed at least 46 people. Now, the Verify team takes you inside a Virginia nursing home as a vaccine is distributed.

ANNANDALE, Va. — Jambor Zsolt has been desperately waiting for this moment.

As he sits in a makeshift vaccine clinic inside Annandale Healthcare Center in Virginia, he watches a pharmacist prepare a potential lifeline. He grows emotional thinking back on ten brutal months inside the nursing home.

“I just think, every day, if I can make it to the next day,” Zsolt said. “Every day. If I’m going to be alive.”

From the first days of COVID, nursing homes have been overwhelmed. Experts think close to 40 percent of U.S. COVID deaths are connected to long term care.

QUESTION:

Are COVID deaths at nursing homes surging right now?

SOURCES:

  • Data collected by the CDC and posted by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services.
  • Dr. David Gifford, Chief Medical Officer of the American Health Care Association

ANSWER:

Yes, COVID deaths at nursing homes are surging right now, and likely hitting record highs.

WHAT WE FOUND:

Data reported by nursing homes to the CDC’s National Healthcare Safety Network shows a significant surge in COVID deaths since mid-November.

Over the first three weeks of December — the most recent data available—nearly 16 thousand nursing home residents died from COVID. It’s the first significant surge since May, when federal reporting started.

Virginia’s Department of Health website says 53 people died in the outbreak at Annandale Healthcare Center, but a spokesperson for the nursing home disputed that number, saying the actual death toll was 46 people, including 45 residents and one worker.

“The best estimates are that what we're seeing now is worse than what we were seeing at that time,” Dr. Gifford said. “We're seeing a record number of cases. And because of those record number of cases, we're also seeing a record number of deaths.”

Dr. Gifford sees no signs the surge will stop until vaccine protection takes effect.

“Within the next two to four weeks, we should start seeing an early decline,” he forecasted, adding that by February or March the caseload should plummet.

Credit: WUSA9
Data shows nursing home COVID19 deaths surging at the end of 2020.

A LOOK INTO VACCINE ROLLOUT:

The COVID vaccine rollout is now underway at nursing homes across the country. Verify wanted to give you a look at how it’s happening.

Annandale Healthcare Center in Annandale, Virginia offered us an up-close look.

It’s been a difficult year at the nursing home. Forty-five residents and one staff member died during a COVID outbreak last Spring.

Jambor Zsolt still struggles with it. He’s been living at Annandale Healthcare Center for nearly two years.

“It’s awful,” Zsolt said. “When you're losing friends, and you just see ambulances outside every day, like 15 to 20 ambulances, and you don't know what's going on around you. And you’re scared. It's not a good feeling.”

That’s why Zsolt came to get vaccinated just days after beating COVID himself.

“It feels amazing,” he told Verify.

Credit: wusa9
Inside of the halls of the Annandale Health Center.

During the last week of December, Annandale’s activities area became a makeshift, two-day vaccine clinic. CVS pharmacists came to vaccinate staff and residents.

“Oh honey, I am dancing,” Nurse Chilee Nwokeforo said after receiving her shot. “I can hug my mom.”

Nwokeforo spent much of the spring time isolated from her family as COVID spread through the nursing home.

“It was a time of uncertainty,” she said. “A time when you wake up and you don’t know if you’re returning home. It was very tough for us.”

RELATED: 'Too many people are dying' | Maryland nursing home nursing assistant describes her vaccine fears and why she got the shot anyway

COVID is still a constant concern at Annandale. They’ve treated at least ten residents over the past three weeks inside an isolation unit.

RELATED: 'It’s emotional, it’s hope' | A look inside a COVID-19 vaccine distribution center on the first day of vaccinations

The halls are usually quiet these days. No visitors are allowed.

Wadudur Khan has been living at Annandale for nearly ten years after suffering a stroke. For the past ten months, he’s only seen his family through a window.

Khan’s wife watched him get vaccinated on Zoom. She hopes to sit in a room with him someday soon.

“We’ll give each other a hug,” she said. “That’s the first thing we’re going to do. My kids will be so happy to see their dad.”

Credit: WUSA9
In the past ten months, Wadudur Khan has only seen his family through a window. Now, one of the first at the center to get the COVID19 vaccine.

Around 80 percent of Annandale’s residents and 62 percent of staff are now vaccinated, according to Executive Director Marie Costa Nadora. She believes, if cases decline in the coming weeks, visitors will be welcomed back by March.

“I think if we get everyone vaccinated it will be possible,” Costa Nadora said.

RELATED: ‘It’s a shot of hope’ | COVID-19 vaccine arrives at Maryland long-term care facilities

Julia Conyers is anxiously awaiting that moment. The 72-year-old came to Annandale last winter needing just three weeks of physical therapy.

“I could not leave,” Conyers said. “It's been a very difficult year, because I came in originally thinking I was going to be here for just a few weeks. And the next thing I know COVID happened and I’m in here.”

She hasn’t seen her four children or ten grandchildren since. It’s been lonely. She relies on video chats with them to get her through the day.

“It’s very painful,” she said.

So Conyers insisted on getting vaccinated with the first group at Annandale. She hopes that shot is her way back home.

“I can’t wait for that day,” she said. “I’m very hopeful.”