By Mike Festa, State Director, AARP Massachusetts
The COVID-19 death toll in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities is a national disgrace. More than 50,000 Americans have died—alone and afraid, often without a single family member by their side.
The numbers are shocking, and the stories are gut wrenching. No state has managed this crisis well. Of the 7,874 COVID-19 deaths in Massachusetts, 4,956 were nursing home residents.
Our elected leaders should have seen this coming. The first major outbreak of COVID-19 on U.S. soil was in a nursing home—first reported February 29 in Washington State. It was immediately clear long-term care facilities would be a hotbed for the virus, weeks before states began locking down.
Right now, no state is doing enough to stop the spread in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. Now it is time for Congress to act.
To keep residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities safe and their families connected, Congress must ensure that all facilities: regularly test residents and staff; have and correctly use personal protective equipment (PPE); publicly report COVID-19 cases and deaths daily; and facilitate virtual visits between residents and their families.
Understanding and containing the spread of COVID-19 requires ongoing, regular testing of all long-term care residents and workers. With rigorous testing, nursing homes can identify cases and prevent the spread of the virus.
Congress must also ensure all facilities have a sufficient supply of PPE, like masks, gowns, gloves, and face shields, to protect workers and residents. And, facilities must stiffen protocols for infection control. A recent Government Accountability Office report found more than 80 percent of nursing homes were cited for infection prevention failures—before the pandemic. If facilities ignored basic procedures like handwashing before an outbreak, they stood no chance of keeping residents safe from the coronavirus.
Families and the public need the facts about their loved ones and the facilities where they live. Congress must demand that nursing homes and other long-term care facilities publicly report the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths among residents and staff daily. Complete transparency will help public health officials direct resources and allow residents, prospective residents, and their families to make informed decisions about their lives.
We also need to keep families connected during this challenging time. Congress must require nursing homes and other long-term care facilities to make available and facilitate virtual visits between residents and their families—even as some facilities begin to allow limited in-person visits. Loved ones serve as additional eyes and ears in facilities and are often the first to spot changes in a resident’s physical or mental health. Virtual visits can help fill these gaps and reduce the isolation residents face while visitors are banned or not allowed to visit regularly.
Lastly, Congress must stop efforts to provide long-term care facilities with immunity related to COVID-19. Long-term care providers must remain responsible for any negligent actions that fail to protect the health—and lives—of residents and staff. Litigation is an option of last resort, and no family member who has lost a loved one due to neglect or abuse pursues this course of action lightly. Now is not the time to strip nursing home residents and families of their rights—and to let nursing homes off the hook for abuse, neglect, and even death.
Even as Massachusetts begins to reopen, COVID-19 remains a real threat in our nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. Residents are scared and isolated, and too many families remain in the dark. Our leaders in Washington must step up for Massachusetts’ long-term care residents, staff, and families before more lives are lost.
Mike Festa is the State Director for AARP Massachusetts.