When the pandemic first hit in March of 2020, the residents of nursing homes and other senior facilities were hit the hardest by COVID — with more than 3,600 resident deaths and more than 34,000 cases in Maryland alone. Nursing homes have several factors that make them inherently vulnerable to a virus like COVID, including an elderly population, many with pre-existing conditions, and a close living situation that enables transmission to other residents. However, there were other reasons that nursing homes failed to contain COVID that were preventable, and most of these are related to bad infection control practices. If there is a silver lining to the COVID pandemic, it is that perhaps the nursing home industry will finally begin making long-overdue changes to protect residents from COVID and future viruses.The COVID pandemic put a spotlight on the problem of infection controls at nursing homes. Experts warn that the next pandemic-level virus is a question of when rather than if. The reality is that every year, even common viruses take the lives of many nursing home residents, whose immune systems make them extremely vulnerable. Here are few of the COVID adaptations that should become regular best practices in a post-COVID world:
- Mask wearing:
In Japan, when the public became aware of the COVID pandemic, they did what they are accustomed to doing: they put on masks. Even before COVID, the Japanese have been using masks as a practical solution to help stay healthy and to protect one’s neighbors from illness, especially during flu season. This practice likely played a significant role in Japan’s success in containing the virus. In the United States, mask wearing, even at nursing homes, was one of the new realities of the COVID pandemic, and unfortunately it also became a political issue. The reality is that masks have been proven to drastically reduce the transmission of COVID and other airborne viruses. When COVID is just a bad memory, masks should be a common sight at nursing homes, to protect residents from the invisible threat of viral disease from staff, visitors, and other residents.
The biggest problem for nursing homes throughout the pandemic was keeping infected individuals, including staff members, from bringing the virus into the facility and transmitting it to residents. In desperation, the country’s nursing homes were forced to put a ban on visitation rights to help prevent the introduction of the COVID virus to the resident population. It caused terrible isolation, loneliness, and suffering for residents, but without an effective testing program, there was no other way to protect the residents. Even after testing methods were established, the virus was able to infiltrate facilities through the staff members who could contract the virus at home and bring it to work. Today, we have rapid-response testing for COVID, and although it is not 100% accurate, it is a vital tool for infection control. In a post-COVID world, nursing homes should be doing more rapid-response testing for all types of influenza, for all visitors, vendors, inspectors, and staff to help reduce the chance of an outbreak.
- Enforcement of Infection Control Best Practices:
The huge number of COVID deaths at nursing homes was a shocking revelation that made headlines, but for experts who understand the business of nursing homes, the pandemic disaster at nursing homes was no surprise. Regulators have hit some of the worst nursing homes with fines for their mishandling of COVID, but even the largest fines that have been levied are not enough of a threat to inspire the necessary changes. The industry has been cutting corners with regard to infection controls for decades, despite warnings that a pandemic-level event like COVID was inevitable (and it won’t be the last) and despite the knowledge that common viruses are a leading cause of death among residents every year. The reason that nursing homes were not prepared for COVID had less to do with a sinister virus, and more to do with corporate greed. Nursing homes are understaffed, undertrained, and ill-equipped, and they know it. There are already well defined guidelines for infection controls, but nursing homes regularly fail inspections, and the most common violations are related to infection controls. The Government Accounting Office found that 82% of nursing homes had a documented infection control problem, and half of those had chronic issues with infection controls, spanning multiple years. The reason is simple: it’s cheaper to risk the fines than to invest in solid infection controls, which would require hiring more staff, better training, and the creation of quarantine protocols, including paid leave for sick staff members. In the months leading up the COVID pandemic, the lobby representing nursing homes was successfully working to reduce unannounced inspections and cut the fines associated with infractions. State and federal regulators must hit the owners and operators of nursing homes with more surprise inspections with stiffer fines and suspensions. Until they do so, the industry will continue to consider deaths due to virus as one of the costs of doing business that they’re willing to pay.
Until the nursing home industry shifts and begins taking the necessary steps to protect vulnerable residents, there will continue to be avoidable injuries and deaths due to their negligence. Our attorneys at Brown & Barron, LLC focus on representing the victims of medical malpractice and nursing home abuse/neglect. We know first-hand how these facilities function, and just how vulnerable patients and residents are to injuries. If you believe you or a family member has suffered as a result of medical malpractice or nursing home negligence, we invite you to contact our team as soon as possible to learn more about your rights and options. To contact our team, call (410) 698-1717 today for a consultation.