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Are Nursing Homes Coronavirus Death Traps?

Nursing home patients across the country are falling victim to the coronavirus in increasingly large numbers as reports surface that many such facilities have failed to meet minimum health and safety standards intended to control the spread of infectious disease.

The Washington Post reported April 17 that 40 percent of more than 650 nursing homes nationwide with publicly reported cases of the coronavirus have been cited more than once by federal inspectors for violating such health and safety standards.

According to The New York Times, the coronavirus had claimed at least 7,000 lives by April 17, six weeks into the pandemic in the U.S., about one-fifth of all deaths attributed to the virus.

So if you have family members or friends in nursing homes or other assisted living facilities, places where the elderly should be treated with dignity and given the best possible care, you probably have good reason to be concerned.

Reported The Post:

Since 2016, the nursing homes accrued hundreds of deficiencies for unsafe conditions that can trigger the spread of flu, pneumonia, urinary tract infections and skin diseases. Dozens were flagged by inspectors only months before the coronavirus pandemic struck the United States.

The Post continued:

It is difficult to say whether past violations contributed to current outbreaks or whether any level of preparation would have been enough to protect against a previously unidentified pathogen, but nursing home watchdog groups say the breakdowns have endangered older, vulnerable residents already more at risk of dying from the highly contagious virus.

The Post reported that nursing homes with a history of infection-control deficiencies span 35 states, including California, Washington state, and Connecticut. The Post said that some facilities failed to track residents with symptoms of infections. In some cases, management did not ensure staff members changed soiled gloves, washed their hands or wore personal protective equipment (PPE).

In California, the Mercury News reported that:

Public records show that such conditions have existed for years inside a pair of nursing homes in Hayward and Orinda with the highest known toll of infections and death from COVID-19 in the Bay Area. And, the records show, the owners of those homes have a track record of similar problems in their other facilities — a pattern experts say is all too common in the industry.

The publication added:

Both owners appear to be among what an expert called the “bad actors” in an industry where profits often come before patient needs and regulations are blatantly ignored. Records of 22 nursing homes they own or have previously owned show 1,110 state deficiencies and more than 1,700 complaints over the past three years.

Industry Reponse

Meanwhile, the American Health Care Association/National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL) issued a statement today calling on governments at all levels to step up and improve access to testing and PPE.

In its press release, the organization's president, Mark Parkinson, said:

“According to a Washington Post article this week, ‘one out of 10 nursing homes have publicly reported cases of the coronavirus…with a death count that has spiraled into the thousands.’”

“We’re hearing from our nursing homes and assisted living communities that have undertaken expanded testing that they are finding a high number of residents and staff who are positive, but without symptoms. Without access to more testing, long term care providers are at a severe disadvantage in identifying more of these asymptomatic residents and staff. And without more personal protective equipment our staff is at a serious disadvantage in protecting themselves so they can care for the vulnerable population who reside in our facilities.

“Plain and simple, whether it’s our federal, state or local health agencies, long term care facilities need adequate testing kits and personal protective equipment.  And we need them now.  (emphasis added)

“It is time to rally around nursing home and assisted living residents the same way we have around hospital patients and workers. The profession will continue to work with local, state and federal health officials to ensure all possible actions are taken to protect our nation’s most vulnerable and our heroes on the front lines. It is time to make America’s long term care residents a priority.”

The organization has published on its website a detailed list of instructions for its member companies to follow as they are confronted with the coronavirus. There are also instructions for patients, families and friends.

Yes, Mr. Parkinson, it is, indeed, time to make America's long term care residents a priority. It's long past time. A good start would be to shut down those facilities that have failed to comply with state and federal safety standards before more patients die.

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