This story was updated Friday, April 10.

State health officials have reduced their count of COVID-19-related deaths and the number of cases connected with a nursing home in Norman.

The Oklahoma State Department of Health said seven residents of Grace Skilled Nursing and Therapy in west Norman have died, and 52 residents and staff members have tested positive for the novel coronavirus. Previously, the agency had said eight residents died and 67 people were positive.

The department attributed the mistake to confusion over reported deaths and cases at two nursing homes: the facility in Norman and another nursing home in Mangum.

Both are owned by for-profit limited liability companies tied to members of the same family, according to federal data on nursing homes. At Mangum Skilled Nursing and Therapy, three residents have died of COVID-19 and 29 residents and staff members have tested positive, according to the latest health department report on coronavirus in long-term care facilities. A staff member at a third nursing home, Grace Skilled Nursing and Therapy in Jenks, has tested positive, the report says.

The state is investigating the Norman nursing-home outbreak, the largest one at a long-term care facility in the state, according to the department’s report. An outbreak team conducted an on-site investigation at the Norman nursing home on March 25 and the investigation is ongoing, the report states.

The health department on Friday reported a total of 19 deaths of residents in Oklahoma long-term care or nursing home facilities.

As of Wednesday, Cleveland County had 14 reported COVID-19 deaths. Oklahoma County had 15, and Tulsa County had 16.

Grace Skilled Nursing and Therapy in Norman released a statement Friday saying that after coronavirus cases emerged, it began aggressive testing of its residents there, using a private Norman laboratory. “The facility’s voluntary decision to implement exhaustive testing was one of the many ways in which it is attempting to fight the spread of COVID 19 within the facility and best serve its residents,” the statement said.

As a result, “the facility was able to confirm as positive many individuals who were already presumed positive and many others who may not have otherwise been tested.” The results were shared with them and authorities, including the state health department.

The statement added that although news media had sought more information, “out of respect for the privacy of the individuals involved, and more specifically at the request of many of our families, specific numbers were not released.”

A woman is seen bringing food into the Grace Skilled Nursing and Therapy in Norman on March 26. (Whitney Bryen/Oklahoma Watch)

Shelley Zumwalt, spokeswoman for the health department, said in a statement: “We are releasing this information on long-term care facilities in the hope that it can provide relief for those with family members with loved ones who reside there.” 

The agency advised that relatives of anyone in a nursing facility with a confirmed coronavirus case not move the person out. “To remove them at this time would present a dangerous public health situation and accelerate community spread of the virus by multiple magnitudes,” the statement said. 

There are more than 600 long-term care or nursing facilities in the state, ranging from nursing homes and assisted living centers to veterans centers and residential care homes.

Among other facilities that have at least one confirmed coronavirus case are Brookhaven Extensive Care and Medical Park West Rehabilitation in Norman; Emerald Square and Parcway Post Acute Recovery in Oklahoma City; Franciscan Villa in Broken Arrow; New Hope Retirement Center in McAlester; Skiatook Nursing Home in Skiatook, and The Villages at Southern Hill in Tulsa.

Effects on Family, Residents

The outbreak at Grace Skilled Nursing and Therapy in Norman has weighed heavily on residents, loved ones and staff.

Gary Webb became emotional as he recalled the last time he saw his 83-year-old mother, Nelda, in person. She remains in the nursing home. 

The two chatted over a chicken dinner, her favorite, about dominos and her electric wheelchair acting up. Webb’s mother was quarantined on March 21 after showing symptoms of the virus, he said. She was tested a week later and the results came back positive on Monday. 

“I don’t care who knows right now because I want every nursing home patient to be tested and taken care of,” Webb said. “I don’t have a fight with the nursing home, but not letting everyone know what’s going on, that’s what I have a problem with.” 

Webb said his mother was put on hydroxychloroquine, a drug commonly used to treat malaria and which a small study in China found sped up recovery of people mildly ill from the coronavirus. On Monday, the family said she was not responding to the drug and had taken “a turn for the worse.” Her fever spiked and she was transferred to the hospital, they said.

Video: Gary Webb’s mother, Nelda, in Nursing Home

Nelda Webb and her husband, Bobby. (Photo provided)

Norman Mayor Breea Clark said she is frustrated at the limited release of information from the nursing home, hospital and the state health department about the virus. 

Clark said she doesn’t know how many of Cleveland County’s confirmed cases or even deaths are in Norman. Many residents have called the city asking for information about the nursing home, but Clark said she doesn’t know. 

“I was concerned about that being a hot spot the moment they had a confirmed case,” Clark said. “I don’t have any information so it feels like they’re trying to doctor the numbers or something.”

Jonathan Nesbitt’s grandmother raised cotton and wheat in western Oklahoma for much of her life and taught him the value of hard work and kindness. 

Nesbitt’s grandmother was a resident at Grace Skilled Nursing and Therapy. She was 89 years old and on hospice care when she died on March 27. She had Alzheimer’s and staff said they had no reason to believe she had the coronavirus, Nesbitt said. “But we’ll never know for sure.”

The facility would not say how many tests have been conducted or whether any residents have died in recent weeks that were not tested for the virus. 

Many nursing homes have imposed strict controls since the advent of COVID-19, prohibiting visitors, restricting residents to their rooms and intensifying efforts to clean and sanitize.

Infection Control

A recent Oklahoma Watch analysis of state health inspections of the state’s nursing homes from late 2017 through 2019 found that more than half were cited for infection control and prevention violations, the most common violation.

No infection-control violations have been tied to any of the coronavirus cases or deaths in long-term care facilities. It’s unknown if health inspectors are checking practices at facilities where residents tested positive for the virus or died of COVID-19.

A nursing home in Washington tied to 40 COVID-19 deaths was fined more than $611,000 by federal officials, the Washington Post reported Thursday. Among the violations was failing to report an outbreak of respiratory illness to local authorities within two weeks, as required by law, and giving inadequate care to residents during the outbreak.

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