The number of COVID-19 outbreaks reported in UK care homes rose rapidly in early March of 2020. Owing to the increased co-morbidities and therefore worse COVID-19 outcomes for care home residents, it is important that we understand this increase and its future implications. We demonstrate the use of an SIS model where each nursing home is an infective unit capable of either being susceptible to an outbreak (S) or in an active outbreak (I). We use a generalized additive model to approximate the trend in growth rate of outbreaks in care homes and find the fit to be improved in a model where the growth rate is proportional to the number of current care home outbreaks compared with a model with a constant growth rate. Using parameters found from the outbreak-dependent growth rate, we predict a 73% prevalence of outbreaks in UK care homes without intervention as a reasonable worst-case planning assumption. This article is part of the theme issue 'Modelling that shaped the early COVID-19 pandemic response in the UK'.