A dozen residential and skilled nursing facilities in Palo Alto, Mountain View and Los Altos have experienced outbreaks of COVID-19 in the past two months, according to data from county and state departments of public health.
But unlike prior outbreaks of other variants, the illnesses caused this time have been less severe and are afflicting fewer patients, directors of local long-term care facilities said on Wednesday.
Between Dec. 15 and Jan. 27, The Vi at Palo Alto had 32 cases; Palo Alto Sub-Acute and Rehabilitation Center reported 47 cases. Palo Alto Commons has had 33 cases; Sunrise Assisted Living of Palo Alto had 16.
In Mountain View, Grant Cuesta Sub-Acute and Rehabilitation Center has had the most cases, at 56. Villa Siena residential facility has had 14 cases.
Los Altos Sub-Acute and Rehabilitation Center has had 52 cases and The Terraces at Los Altos has had 28 cases.
The Avant of Palo Alto Commons residential living, which reported the earliest outbreak on Nov. 29, had fewer than 11 cases.
Most of the facilities began reporting their cases around or just after the Christmas holiday. Some started as early as Dec. 15, according to the county data.
The current outbreaks have largely been among health care workers, who include everyone from housekeepers to dining and nursing staff. One of the largest contributors to health care workers' infections have been children who have returned to schools and family members who have picked up the virus after exposure at work, the facilities' executives said.
"This time around, it's less scary. We knew it was coming," said Rhonda Bekkedahl, CEO and executive director at Channing House. The Palo Alto congregate-care and independent living community has had fewer than 11 cases since Jan. 4, according to Santa Clara County Department of Public Health data through Jan. 27.
Bekkedahl said they knew there was "a big possibility" of an outbreak, which was emphasized during weekly phone conferences among long-term-care providers and the California Department of Public Health, she said. But 100% of Channing House residents are fully vaccinated and boosted and nearly 100% of staff as well, cutting down on potential case numbers.
"It helped a lot," she said.
The health care workers also use face shields and are encouraged to avoid large gatherings. The result of all of the efforts has been milder cases among those who do become ill, she said.
Yet one difference during this surge is that children, who have returned to in-person learning, are getting COVID-19. More workers have tested positive than residents, and those staff members who have been infected have children in school and spouses at work who contracted the virus, she said.
"It has created a more significant workforce challenge," Bekkedahl said.
Channing House prepared for a worker shortage by cross-training staff, she said.
Channing House and other long-term care facilities are also closely following a state order that went into effect on Jan. 7 and is set to expire Feb. 7. Visitors are required to show proof of a negative PCR test within 48 hours of coming to the facility or a negative rapid test if it is done in the presence of staff.
However, PCR turnaround times have lagged and rapid test kits have been in short supply, leaving some families unable to see their loved ones.
"It effectively shut down visitation. It was a very frustrating situation for our families," Bekkedahl said.
Mary McMullin, chief strategist and advancement officer at Covia Communities, which operates Webster House in Palo Alto, said they were also warned about the potential volume of omicron cases that could emerge.
Yet, "there was little staff-to-resident transmission. It shows that our infection-prevention protocols worked," she said.
As of Feb. 2, their residential community had a total of one resident and five staff members infected since Dec. 24. The health center/skilled nursing had 11 residents and 26 staff members test positive since Dec. 29, McMullin said. No one was hospitalized and the cases have mostly been asymptomatic or mild.
The omicron variant was more contagious, she said.
"It came through quickly and now it's gone through quickly," she said, noting that the facilities are now on the downslope of the outbreak. Staff has largely returned to work, she added.
Moldaw Family Residences in Palo Alto has had 24 cases from Dec. 21 through Jan. 27, according to county data. They currently have one asymptomatic case as of Feb. 2, executive director Elyse Gerson said.
About half of the cases have been residents and half have been staff. Many residents live independently and have gone out to restaurants and to see family, which is how they were exposed to the virus, Gerson said.
Last August, Moldaw had an outbreak of the delta variant, which immediately spread, Gerson said. Since then, they've done preemptive, weekly testing to "nip the problem in the bud."
Gerson said they weren't caught off guard by the outbreak because they haven't been complacent.
"Some of it is muscle memory. We've been doing this for two years and we've taken extra precautions."
Moldaw has looked for creative ways to connect people. Instead of congregate dining and other get-togethers, there are Zoom-meeting dinners at 5:30 p.m. and virtual trips to China with a live tour guide to keep people engaged and connected, she said.