June 22 (UPI) -- Deaths among Medicare patients in U.S. nursing homes last year surged by more than 30% -- with two pronounced spikes at different times of the year, according to a comprehensive report Tuesday by the inspector general of the Health and Human Services Department.
The analysis is one of the most thorough to date about the impact of COVID-19 on U.S. care facilities, which often saw peculiar increases in cases and deaths at various times in 2020.
Tuesday's report, issued by the office of Acting HHS Inspector General Christi Grimm, said nursing home deaths rose by 32% last year -- which amounted to 170,000 more deaths among such patients than in 2019.
Elderly patients, many of whom have underlying health conditions and live in close quarters at the facilities, have been heavily impacted by the coronavirus disease. The report said Medicare patients were particularly vulnerable, with two in five contracting or likely contracting COVID-19 in 2020.
The assessment also noted that the overall mortality rate in nursing homes rose to 22% last year, an increase of 5% from 2019.
There were two significant spikes in nursing home deaths eight months apart last year, in April and December, the report said. April was one of the most devastating months of the year and saw more than 80,000 deaths among Medicare patients in care facilities. In December, that figure was about 74,000.
"The pandemic had far-reaching implications for all nursing home beneficiaries, beyond those who had or likely had COVID-19," the 12-page report states.
"Understanding how many beneficiaries in nursing homes were affected, who they were, and what characteristics may have put some at greater risk can help prevent future tragedies."
"The toll that the COVID-19 pandemic has taken on Medicare beneficiaries in nursing homes demonstrates the need for increased action to mitigate the effects of the ongoing pandemic and to avert such tragedies from occurring in the future," the inspector general's office said in a statement.
The report went on to say that each month of 2020 saw a higher mortality rate than the year prior, and some states were hit harder than others. In some -- like Connecticut, Illinois, Louisiana and New Jersey -- more than half of Medicare patients in nursing homes had COVID-19.
The report also found that half of all Black, Hispanic and Asian Medicare patients in care facilities picked up the virus. Age and gender within the nursing homes didn't seem to be a varying factor, it said.
Grimm's office said Tuesday's assessment is the first in a three-part series that will examine the impact of the pandemic in nursing homes. The next two will address which facilities saw the greatest impact and what strategies were used to mitigate infections and deaths.