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Long-term-care facilities in Georgia have seen some of the worst COVID-19 outbreaks and resulting deaths in the country, and public health officials are urging caution for traveling during Thanksgiving to help slow the spread of the virus on behalf of the vulnerable population.

Georgia ranks fourth in the country for coronavirus cases in long-term care facilities per capita and ninth in deaths. The virus continues to spread in Northwest Georgia, where Whitfield and Murray counties lead the state with cases per capita.

Outbreaks at nursing homes in Fort Oglethorpe, Rossville and Dalton have devastated facilities across Northwest Georgia. The latest outbreak is in Dade County.

Dade Health and Rehabilitation in Trenton has reported that a combined 49 staff members and residents have tested positive for COVID-19.

On Sept. 15, Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp issued his latest coronavirus executive order that laid out the framework on how residents, family members and friends could return to long-term care facilities as visitors.

A week later, Kemp and his administration eased some of the initial guidelines to make visiting loved ones more accessible. The new guidelines restrict visitations in facilities that have active coronavirus cases and in counties with high infection rates.

The order also requires a facility to be free from an active COVID-19 case for 14 days before taking general visits. Facilities in counties with a positivity rate of 10% or less can begin easing restrictions and provide limited indoor visitations.

Georgia nursing homes have been in lockdown since March, and many families are torn between wanting to be there for their loved ones as they face isolation and loneliness and the risks of visiting.

Dade Health and Rehab, along with hundreds of nursing homes in Georgia, was getting ready to open the facility to supervised visits from family and friends following Kemp's new rules.

The nursing home started regularly testing staff at the beginning of October. Cases in Dade County were slightly on the rise at the time, and on Oct. 22 the nursing home reported one staff member had tested positive for COVID-19. This halted the facility's plans to host visitors on a limited basis.

Two days later, the first resident to test positive was confirmed, and cases have been slowly growing since.

Eight residents were reported to test positive on Oct. 27. Three days later after a facility-wide testing, 15 more residents and three staff members tested positive.

On Nov. 3, 11 new positive cases emerged.

Trina Massengale, the administrator at Dade Health and Rehabilitation, told the Times Free Press the total number of cases is now up to 49 with 37 residents and 12 staff members testing positive.

Since the initial positive cases were confirmed in early November, four residents have died and nine have recovered.

"We have maintained staffing patterns with our amazing team here at Dade," Massengale said in an email on Nov. 9. "Our residents are receiving the best of care and we are praying for an end to our outbreak."

Deke Cateau is the CEO of A.G. Rhodes, a community wellness organization in Atlanta that provides long-term care and short-term recovery to seniors. Cateau was part of a news conference Monday with public health leaders in Wisconsin and Iowa. He warned of the dangers of traveling during the holidays and how that could affect residents and staff members at these facilities.

"This is a plea," Cateau said. "Nursing homes are at our financial brink, our operational brink and our emotional brink. We've become family to our residents, and we are asking our staff to become the surrogate family to our residents. I cannot say enough about what they've been doing, since they are also at risk."

Contact Patrick Filbin at pfilbin@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.

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