Amid deteriorating finances that don’t allow for much-needed building infrastructure updates, the only skilled nursing facility in the town of Norton, MA, will be closing by early next year and will be turned into an assisted living community, according to its owners. 

The facility — Wingate at Norton — is just the latest SNF being forced to close nationwide. Ongoing low occupancy amid the COVID-19 pandemic is threatening many institutions’ long-term sustainability.

Occupancy at skilled nursing facilities hit a near-record low of 74% in the third quarter, according to data released Wednesday from the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care’s NIC MAP Data Service. (The record of 73.8% was registered in the July-August time frame.) That number is significantly below pre-pandemic levels reported in February (84.9%) and March (83.5%). The decline has been more severed in urban areas, with occupancy falling 11.8% since February, compared with an 8% decline within rural areas in the same time period.

Sharply declining occupancy, coupled with the high cost of personal protective equipment, COVID-19 testing and hazard pay, is placing the skilled nursing sector under unsustainable financial strain, said Bill Kaufman, senior principal at NIC.

“Significantly lower occupancy and greater operating expenses have created unprecedented challenges for skilled nursing operators,” Kaufman said Wednesday in a press release, adding that “NIC expects occupancy to remain dangerously low in the fourth quarter before vaccines become available to healthcare workers and skilled nursing residents.”

NIC Chief Economist Beth Burnham Mace also noted that many skilled nursing facilities survived the spring and summer because Congress authorized unprecedented financial aid through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act and Paycheck Protection Program. Skilled nursing also was aided by the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services waiving its three-day hospital stay requirement, which extended coverage to more people affected by COVID-19.

“But as funds become exhausted and COVID-19 cases rise with little likelihood of immediate government intervention, it will be difficult for many facilities to continue sustainable operations,” Mace said.

Like Wingate at Norton, which will be purchased by LCB Assisted Living (an owner/operator of 27 senior living communities in New England), the skilled nursing sector is likely to see even more closings and consolidations in the coming months.

This article appeared in the McKnight’s Business Daily, a joint effort of McKnight’s Senior Living and McKnight’s Long-Term Care News.