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Coronavirus Deaths At Nursing Homes Account For Nearly Half Of Illinois' Overall Death Toll; Expert Calls That 'A Major Underestimate'

CHICAGO (CBS) -- COVID-19 deaths in Illinois nursing homes continue to rise at an alarming rate. Three weeks ago, about 25% of the state's deaths from the novel coronavirus could be traced to nursing homes, but that number has since doubled.

According to published reports, about a one-third of the nation's 78,000 virus deaths can be traced back to nursing homes and long term care facilities, but in Illinois, the percentage of deaths tied to nursing homes is even higher: 48%.

From Washington state, where the first cluster of deaths from COVID-19 was announced at a nursing home in March, to Joliet, where more than two dozen people later died at Symphony of Joliet nursing home, the virus continues to exact a heavy toll on the nation's long-term care facilities.

Dr. Howard Ehrman, a retired University of Illinois at Chicago professor who led Will County's response to the ebola outbreak in the 2010s, said 48% of all COVID-19 deaths reported so far in Illinois are nursing home patients, but believes even that is "a major underestimate."

As of Saturday, the Illinois Department of Public Health has reported 3,349 coronavirus deaths. Ehrman believes the numbers are actually much higher, because Illinois doesn't require virus tests after death.

"I think the real number is probably at least 10,000," he said.

Ehrman believes a large percentage of those deaths likely happened in the state's more than 1,200 nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

"Hundreds and hundreds of people have died in the United States from a death that was not known to be COVID-19, when they actually had COVID-19," he said.

Ehrman said removing a loved one from a nursing home before they catch the virus might be the safest option. He acknowledged the difficulty of caring for such a patient at home, but said it could be the difference between life and death in some cases.

"That's far superior than being in a death house," he said.

Ehrman said the best way to protect the 100,000 Illinois residents living in long-term care is to put public health officials in the facilities with them, armed with a checklist "to ensure that PPE [personal protective equipment] be there for every employee, that every person is tested on a regular basis, which means at least once a week."

He also said no employee who tested positive for COVID-19 should be allowed to go back without two separate tests at least 24 hours apart that are negative for the virus.

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