COVID-19 lingers within nursing home patients’ rooms for days

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — SARS-CoV-2 lingers and persists on surfaces like tables, call buttons, and TV remote controls within nursing room patients’ rooms, according to researchers from the University of Michigan. Their study finds an astounding 90 percent of analyzed COVID patients’ rooms showed signs of detectable coronavirus on at least one surface. In some cases, scientists found COVID particles days after the patient left the hospital.

While it’s still true that the vast majority of COVID infections occur due to airborne transfer, these findings suggest surfaces can certainly be contagious as well – especially in places like a nursing home.

In all, the team collected 2,000 samples from both inside and nearby 104 rooms that housed a COVID-19 positive patient. That work revealed 28 percent contained traces of coronavirus RNA. Researchers analyzed a total of four Michigan nursing homes between October 2020 and January 2021.

Study authors did not, however, test the collected RNA swabs to see if they were indeed infectious. Still, they conclude this research can significantly assist with identifying surfaces that health care workers should routinely clean and disinfect.

“These data show that coronavirus is ubiquitous and persistent in the rooms of nursing home residents with COVID-19, and highlight the ongoing importance of rigorous cleaning and protection of staff and visitors,” says first study author Lona Mody, M.D., M.Sc., leader of nursing home infection prevention research at Michigan Medicine’s Department of Internal Medicine, in a university release.

Stopping COVID’s spread within nursing homes

On a more reassuring note, this study also concludes the SARS-CoV-2 virus did not travel outside of the specific patients’ rooms within nursing homes for the most part. Researchers theorize this finding is due to diligent cleaning practices among nursing home staff.

All of the examined rooms belonged to patients testing positive for COVID-19 within two weeks of inspection. Each one included patients placed in a specialized COVID unit for treatment and isolation. It’s also worth noting that over half of the COVID patients had dementia and required help with tasks like bathing and dressing. Meanwhile, study authors considered half of the patients “short-stay” nursing home residents. This is important to mention because the more independent and capable of taking care of oneself a patient was, the more likely researchers were to detect COVID-19 on surfaces in their room.

For context, nursing homes have been major COVID-19 outbreak sites since the pandemic began. Estimates show that as many as one third of all U.S. COVID-19 deaths were nursing home patients. While many elderly nursing home patients are now vaccinated, study authors stress there is still great risk among unvaccinated residents, visitors, and staff.

The study is published in the Journal of the American Geriatrics Society.

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