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COVID-19 Updates: URMC to Study Antibodies; More Data Sought on Nursing Homes

Patti Singer

COVID-19 is taking a toll on older people

As researchers are gaining more knowledge about how the novel coronavirus spreads from person to person, they want to understand how people who’ve been exposed may develop immunity to COVID-19.

Researchers at the University of Rochester Medical Center are seeking people who have had COVID-19 or think they’ve been exposed to the virus for a study. The more diverse the group, the more the findings can relate to the community as a whole.

That knowledge could help develop vaccines and also guide government officials in their decisions to reopen businesses.

The announcement of the study, which is being funded by the National Institutes of Health, came as the community continues to cope with an increasing demand for more information about the illness in long-term care facilities.

Advocates want Gov. Andrew Cuomo to order nursing homes to release the number of COVID-19 cases in the facility. Locally, there is no specific data for deaths per nursing home or assisted living facility. Dr. Michael Mendoza, commissioner of the Monroe County Department of Public Health, said that people age 70 and older accounted for nearly 30% of cases and more than 85% of the deaths in the county.

Among the 49 newly confirmed cases announced April 16, the county reported that seven were among people in their 80s and four were among people in their 90s.
However, it’s not known whether any of those individuals resided in a care facility.

Here are highlights from the two major, separate announcements on April 16 related to COVID-19:

UR Medicine study

Drs. Angela Branche and Ann Falsey, and principal investigator David Topham want to enroll up to 100 people in a study that will last 90 days, but participants could be asked additional periodic follow-up.

Branche said the researchers are interested in people who’ve encountered COVID-19.

Given that health officials say the virus can be transmitted by people who don’t show any symptoms, that could be just about anybody in Rochester.

“If you’ve been social distancing and you’re in a home where nobody’s been infected and you don’t know of any known exposures, the chances of you having an infection are maybe quite a bit lower,” Branche said. “You’re right, they could have an asymptomatic infection. We’ll be specifically asking screening questions and really trying to target people recovering from an infection, currently infected or know they’ve been exposed.”

Exposure to a virus triggers the body to produce natural fighters, called antibodies. The researchers want to find out how robust the antibodies are and how long they last.

To learn more, go to, email or call (585) 273-3990.

Nursing homes

Health commissioner Mendoza said data recording deaths are not set up in a way for him to speak confidently about the number of residents in nursing homes, adult homes or assisted living facilities who have become ill or died from COVID-19. Across the state, families and advocacy groups have called for better information about the illness among nursing home residents. The state Department of Health oversees nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

County Executive Adam Bello said the county developed a task force to work with nursing homes to ensure they have enough personal protective equipment for residents and staff. He said the county is prepared to work with temporary staffing agency so that homes have enough workers to maintain care.

Dr. Thomas Mahoney, chief medical officer of the regional planning agency Common Ground Health who is leading the task force, said that nursing homes where possible are moving residents who have the virus to separate wings.

“This disease is still transmitted even with the best precautions,” he said.
He said visitors who entered the homes before restrictions were in place could have been a source of infection. Homes are checking staff for symptoms.

Much has been written nationally and locally about the disproportionate effect of COVID-19 on communities of color. Recently, Mayor Lovely Warren said the message about social distancing has not been universally received in minority communities.

Asked whether some nursing home workers could be at double the risk of contracting the illness because of where they work and where they live, Mahoney said nursing homes are training staff to reduce their risk of contracting the illness.

Mahoney said nursing homes are training staff to reduce their risk of contracting the illness.

“The training has tried to stress safety, certainly in the job but (also) in their life in general,” he said. “I can’t say I’ve specifically spoken to them about encouraging their staff to protect themselves at home, but I’m aware of the training that’s being given that focuses on that in all activities.”