It has been almost nine months since the World Health Organization (WHO) declared COVID-19, or the novel coronavirus, a pandemic, setting off widespread lockdowns in various countries and changing the world as we previously knew it. The coronavirus has had a substantial impact on the United States, causing more than 280,000 American deaths since its beginning; nursing home residents account for more than 100,000 of these deaths, per AARP. Amid the third wave, many people are wondering, was the pandemic’s tragic impact on our nation’s nursing homes preventable?
COVID-19 Deaths Are Preventable, Not Inevitable
According to AARP, there are a few factors that have led our country’s nursing homes to experience such a high death toll:
- Old and Outdated Laws
While it is difficult to quickly remedy outdated laws, even in the face of a public health threat, that does not mean that nursing home residents were up against an unpreventable danger. In fact, AARP reported, “Even with the flawed system in place, lives could have been saved, experts say, if state and federal officials had acted quickly to make nursing homes a priority in the early days of the outbreak.”
- State and Federal Government Officials
Sadly, government officials across the nation tiptoed around whether or not to implement lockdowns, seemingly unsure of how to approach the pandemic. Then, political polarization affected the nation’s response to the pandemic. According to Brookings, COVID-19 became a “deeply divisive political issue” that was approached more as a chance for politicians to “score points” with their constituents than anything else. Lives were endangered; jobs were lost.
“State leaders have missed opportunities to adopt mask ordinances, limit gatherings in the most dangerous indoor spaces, and allow businesses to operate safely,” Brookings further reported. “Bad COVID policy, distorted by partisanship, has cost lives and jobs, as our work shows.”
- Lack of Testing
Although the politicization of the coronavirus pandemic has been hugely detrimental to the nation’s older populations, the “single greatest error,” per AARP, was the government’s early failure to provide nursing home residents and staff with ample testing. This mistake allowed asymptomatic carriers to spread COVID-19 throughout these senior living communities.
While government entities worked to curb the pandemic — the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) prohibited nonessential visitors and community activities at senior homes, for example — in May, senior federal health official Deborah Birx, M.D. finally addressed the topic of testing nursing home residents and staff. She requested that state governors take charge. Thus, without federal help, state governors had to figure out how to obtain these tests, which was no easy feat. According to AARP, the state of Maryland ended up having to import from South Korea.
- Design of the Nursing Home Industry
To date, nursing homes remain strapped for personal protective equipment (PPE), staff, and test kits, according to the Nursing Home Abuse Center. Even though the federal government provided the nursing home industry with billions of dollars in coronavirus relief, much of this money has gone to organizations that have allegedly used these funds for “activities outside of securing the safety of nursing home residents.”
It seems that the very design of the nursing home industry was not created with a pandemic in mind. “Around 70 percent of U.S. nursing homes are for-profit,” the Nursing Home Abuse Center wrote. “In an effort to save money, many of these companies have compromised staffing and care. Staffing levels have dropped and quality of care is diminished.”
- Bureaucracy in the Health Care Sector
To extrapolate on health care bureaucracy’s shared liability for the death toll, AARP primarily highlights the fact that many agencies, owners, governments, and other people in charge pointed fingers at each other instead of taking control of the situation. If everyone had worked together to implement action plans should an outbreak occur at a facility, things could have gone very differently.
It is clear the pandemic’s impact on U.S. nursing homes could have been prevented. But just because something was not done about it earlier, does not mean that something cannot be done about it now.
Advocating for Nursing Home Residents
If you or a loved one has been negatively impacted by a nursing home that has thrown caution to the wind amid the COVID-19 pandemic, there is a way to hold them accountable for any harm they have caused. Contact our acclaimed attorneys at Brown & Barron, LLC online today.