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56,000 nursing home deaths and Congress blinks

More than 56,000 residents and staff of nursing

More than 56,000 residents and staff of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities — including some 6,500 in New York — have died from COVID-19. Credit: Getty Images / shapecharge

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Already, more than 56,000 residents and staff of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities — including some 6,500 in New York — have died from COVID-19. They account for more than 44% of U.S. coronavirus deaths, even though less than 1% of Americans live in nursing homes.

This is a national disgrace.

To date, Congress has passed four bills that seek to mitigate the devastating impact of coronavirus on Americans. Yet, these bills barely touch on the crisis raging in long-term care facilities. And now, Congress appears to have blinked. What will it take for Congress to take meaningful action to protect nursing home residents?

For five months, nursing homes have been a hotbed for the virus — yet basic precautions to protect residents and staff are not in place. AARP has heard gut-wrenching accounts from thousands of family members worried about loved ones in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

For example, Barbara’s mother had been living in a nursing home in Nassau County for about three and a half years when she contracted the coronavirus. Although her mother, who has Alzheimer’s, was not able to breathe and ran a high fever, she was not sent to the hospital. Instead, she had been quarantined in her room the whole time.

Nobody told Barbara. When she would ask staff for a photo of her mother or to set up a FaceTime call, the staff was unresponsive. Finally, the facility administrator called Barbara to say how sorry she was that her mother’s health had declined quickly the previous night. This was the first Barbara heard of the seriousness of her mother’s condition.

Barbara got in her car and started driving to the facility, when the facility called to say an ambulance was taking her mother to the hospital. When Barbara arrived, her mother had already been taken away.

This requires both a state and federal response. However, it’s time for lawmakers in Washington to pass a bipartisan COVID-19 response package that includes dedicated funding and five key policies to protect seniors in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities:

1. Ensure regular testing of staff and residents, and adequate personal protective equipment.

2. Create transparency focused on daily, public reporting to relevant authorities of cases and deaths in facilities, communication with families when residents are discharged or transferred, and accountability for how billions of dollars in federal funding are spent.

3. Require access to facilitated virtual visitation.

4. Provide better care for residents through adequate staffing, oversight, and access to long-term care representatives.

5. Stop attempts to provide blanket immunity for long-term care facilities related to COVID-19.

The legislation pending in Congress will help save the lives of nursing home residents. What’s missing is the will to make these older Americans and their families a priority.

Beth Finkel is the state director of AARP New York.

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