COVID-19 Racing Through Nursing Homes: What Families Can Do

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More than 38,000 people living and working in nursing homes have now died from COVID-19 in the United States.

In early June, a study by geriatricians at two Boston medical facilities reported that long-term care facilities are a “major driver” of COVID-19 deaths in the United States.

The researchers reported that these facilities account for 63 percent of all COVID-19 fatalities in Massachusetts.

They added that nursing homes also account for 81 percent of COVID-19 deaths in both Minnesota and Rhode Island as well as 71 percent in Connecticut and 70 percent in New Hampshire.

In another 22 states, long-term care facilities account for more than half of all COVID-19 fatalities.

As these deaths continue to rise, medical professionals in these facilities are struggling to take care of a population who is most easily victimized by the pandemic.

“When you look at the mortality rate from COVID-19, according to the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), about 85 percent of the deaths have been in people 65 years or older,” said Emma, a nursing home physical therapist on the East Coast. “So there is an obvious trend.”

“You have the most at-risk population for COVID-19 mortality and symptoms in the hospital and in the nursing homes because these are where there is the highest senior population and highest population of people with multiple illnesses or diagnoses,” said Emma, who asked that her last name not be used in this story. “You are going to potentially see more fatalities in these facilities, and I think a majority of these fatalities are because of the frailty many patients already had, which then placed them at higher risk for mortality, and not necessarily poor preparation or care.”

The situation in nursing homes is so dire, the CDC announcedTrusted Source in mid-April that it’s tracking cases in nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

Facilities are now required to report cases directly to the CDC as well as to other patients and their families.

“Our country, unlike others, is segregated by age,” Steven M. Levin, a Chicago attorney specializing in nursing home advocacy, told Healthline. “Only 13 percent of older people live with extended family members, Instead, they live in their own communities. Now we’re seeing that, once an infection hits, it can quickly turn into a catastrophe.”

Nursing homes in the spotlight

An analysis by the New York Times reported in May that there were at least 8,500 nursing homes and other long-care facilities in the United States with reported COVID-19 cases.

That includes the Life Care Center in Kirkland, Washington, where 43 people died early in the pandemic.

That facility was fined $611,000 for its response.

That isn’t necessarily the right way to address the problem, according to Josh Luke, PhD, who teaches at the University of Southern California’s Sol Price School of Public Policy and was an administrator at Carriage House Nursing Center in Fullerton, California, from 2003 to 2004.

“The federal government has to take a long look at nursing homes,” Luke, who also served as the chief executive officer for Memorial Hospital in Gardena, California, told Healthline. “They’re trying to figure out what’s going on and you’re saddling them with fines?”

Luke said laws regulating a certain amount of staff per patient are already too low in nursing homes, many of which won’t be taking new patients while the current lockdown lasts.

He said nursing homes are well aware they’re going to be targeted in lawsuits when this is over.

“Nursing homes are going to have to partner with health plans. They have to increase nursing ratios. They already operate on the thinnest of margins,” Luke said. “It could take a year to fill 50 beds in a facility. The staff gets sick, they get scared, and they don’t show up.”