Image of senior woman with a mask looking wistfully out a door

U.S. nursing homes on average have each experienced about three COVID-19 outbreaks during the ongoing public health crisis, according to a new report from the Government Accountability Office.

Just 64 U.S. nursing homes escaped a COVID-19 outbreak altogether in the latter half of 2020.

Findings released Wednesday by the federal watchdog agency revealed that 44% of more than 13,300 U.S. nursing homes experienced four or more outbreaks from May 2020 to Jan. 2021. The agency used data from the 13,380 Medicare- and Medicaid-certified facilities (88% of total certified nursing homes in the country) that passed federal quality checks each week of the review period. 

Thirty percent of nursing homes experienced at least three outbreaks, 19% experienced at least two, while 6% had one outbreak and just 64 nursing homes, or 0.5%, saw no outbreaks during the timeframe. 

The report is part of the GAO’s ongoing effort to monitor the federal government’s pandemic response, including its oversight of nursing homes and providers’ experience with COVID-19 outbreaks. 

The agency used the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s definition for an outbreak for its review: An outbreak starts the week a nursing home reports a new resident or staff COVID-19 case and ends where there are two weeks of no cases. 

The analysis also revealed that about 85% of nursing homes had outbreaks that lasted five or more weeks, while the other 15% had outbreaks that lasted between one and four weeks. 

Facilities with longer lasting outbreaks on average had about 56 COVID-19 cases, and short-duration outbreak facilities on average experienced 13 cases. 

“For both long- and short-duration outbreaks, over half of the nursing homes (66 percent, or 8,720 homes) reported that these outbreaks began with a staff member who tested positive the first week,” the report explained. 

Findings also showed that nursing homes with longer outbreaks were more likely to have a larger number of beds. However, the GAO did not find any significant differences between facilities with short or long outbreaks, and their ownership and history of infection prevent and control deficiencies.