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State must prioritize COVID-19 testing at nursing homes

Testing nursing home residents for the coronavirus is

Testing nursing home residents for the coronavirus is critical to controlling the spread of the virus among one of New York's most vulnerable populations. Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto/jarun011

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As this pandemic continues its march across the country, the number of people dying in New York nursing homes is startling. There is no other way to describe it.

And although most of the public’s attention was focused on the struggle at our hospitals and emergency rooms, the battle to keep nursing homes safe has been waged for more than a month.

On March 10, owners of nursing homes in the metropolitan area decided to block visitors from their facilities in an attempt to contain the coronavirus spread and prevent patients from contracting the virus. On March 25, however, the state Department of Health mandated that nursing homes accept medically stable, but COVID-19-positive patients from hospitals into their facilities, to create additional capacity at hospitals. 

Making matters more challenging to nursing home staff, personal protective equipment has been severely limited during the crisis. The lack of PPE, and more homes receiving COVID-19 patients, resulted in staff becoming sick or calling out because of fear that they would contract the virus, which led to a dramatic shortage of staff. As staffers in long-term facilities know, social distancing is not possible when changing an adult diaper or giving an IV.

The last condition for a perfect storm that has been hurting nursing homes is the state budget. Handcuffed with a $2.5 billion preexisting Medicaid deficit, state funding to nursing homes was cut. Other states, like Connecticut, have increased their Medicaid expenditures by 15 percent.

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s attention to long-term care is welcomed and desperately needed, not just today but for the future as well. We need to make testing of nursing home residents and staff a priority.

The media attention on the numbers of dead in nursing homes is understandable: every death is a person, not just a number. Some of the outrage over the deaths unfortunately contributes to the perception that the homes have caused this situation. The truth is that nursing home staff perform heroic work to care for the most fragile of our society.

The nursing homes need support, staff and recognition of the essential services that the facilities provide. Governor, you have become the face of our state’s COVID-19 response. Please tell the story of the incredible work being done in nursing homes.

If we don’t and nursing homes are left where they are today, they will be left devastated. Staff will not want to work there and people will not want to send their loved ones to the facilities. And, where would hospitals send their patients for long-term care if these homes were to close?

Nursing homes are crucial to the health care continuum. Our health care system is not designed to operate without them. 

Michael Balboni, a former state senator, is executive director of the Greater New York Healthcare Facilities Association. 

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