Chaos and COVID-19 Fatalities Go Unchecked in U.S. Nursing Homes

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The Wall Street Journal reported on April 23, 2020, that COVID-19 has been responsible for the deaths of 10,000 residents in U.S. nursing and long-term care facilities. Perhaps more alarming than the number of deaths from coronavirus elderly residents have suffered is the lack of accountability and responsibility shown for these very vulnerable patients.

Chronic understaffing, frail and often incapacitated residents, and constant close contact with caregivers have created the perfect storm in the battle between coronavirus and elderly nursing home residents, allowing the virus to sweep through facilities across the country, killing thousands.

In recent weeks, anxious family members have complained that their calls of concern have gone unanswered by health personnel too worried about losing their jobs to speak out on dire situations. Nursing homes no longer allow visitors due to the heightened risk of COVID-19, and elderly nursing home residents are left frightened, stressed, and unsupported.

As of April 23, 2020, New York alone had reported more than 3,500 coronavirus-related deaths at nursing facilities, but families of recently deceased nursing home residents insist the numbers are really much higher. Roughly one in four deaths attributed to COVID-19 have occurred in nursing homes and other adult facilities throughout the state.

Frustrated and angry relatives blame the March 21 state Health Department advisory, a directive that halted testing at nursing homes, leaving facilities with no responsibility to disclose the extent of the reach of COVID-19. Elderly residents have become invisible as nursing homes have been able to deny the presence of the virus completely, despite reports of the illness spreading like wildfire through elder care facilities across the country.

Many families of nursing home residents are understandably outraged after learning of loved ones’ deaths from coronavirus. Elderly victims’ families were not notified of the presence of symptoms in their loved ones in many cases. Others were fed misinformation or were stonewalled by administrators. Most facilities refuse to publicly disclose positive COVID-19 cases and deaths, and many states provide immunity protections from civil suits for health-care providers and personnel during this time of unprecedented emergency. According to NPR, New York has taken it a step further, protecting health facilities and personnel from criminal complaints as well. No immunity measures will protect workers from willful misconduct or gross negligence, however.

New York has a state directive requiring nursing homes to accept recently discharged hospital patients who have tested positive for COVID-19, leaving many understandably concerned over the risk of spreading the disease to current residents since coronavirus and elderly immune systems are a deadly combination. The policy stipulates that nursing homes cannot discriminate against patients who test positive for the virus.

To further complicate matters, hospitals are under no obligation to test patients being transferred to nursing homes, leaving uncertainty as to whether the newly admitted patients are still contagious.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo reiterated that nursing homes had to accept the patients, but only, he clarified, if they could do so safely, according to a New York Times report. He said that if a nursing home is not in a position to offer adequate care, it should transfer the patient to another facility better equipped to do so or notify the state Health Department.

Richard Mollet, executive director of the Long Term Care Community Coalition in New York, an advocacy group for nursing home residents, claims the vast majority of nursing homes have a “tremendous financial incentive” to take in new patients. At a time when the nursing home industry is in free fall, the financial gain of opening their doors to new patients may lead to decisions that only serve to compound COVID-19 fatalities.