Great America

The COVID-19 Tragedy at the Nation’s Nursing Homes

Rather than focus on how to safeguard the most vulnerable among us, politicians have been preening for cable news cameras, blaming the president, halting the sale of vegetable seeds, and warning against small dinner parties in private homes. A tragedy, a failure, and a disgrace.

When the full history of how experts and politicians handled the spread of COVID-19 is written, the account will be littered with missteps, overreach, and unintended consequences.

Decisions that must be included on that long list of failures are the reliance on the disastrous charts produced by the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation, also known as the Murray model; the unprecedented quarantine of tens of millions of healthy Americans; the abrupt and devastating shutdown of the world’s most powerful economy; and freedom-destroying actions by power-grabbing politicians from governors down to judges and small-town mayors. It’s very possible, in terms of containing the disease and preventing future outbreaks, nearly everything we’ve been instructed to do has been wrong.

But the gravest mistake, historians likely will conclude, has been the deadly decision to knowingly mix COVID-19 patients with uninfected residents and health care workers in nursing homes.

The total death count due to COVID-19 in the United States, according to several tracking sources, is roughly 50,000 people since March 1. About 25 percent of the total fatalities tallied so far stem from nursing homes.

“Across the country, a pattern has played out with tragic consistency,” reports the New York Times. “Someone gets sick in a nursing home. Soon, several residents and employees have the coronavirus.”

The paper “identified more than 5,400 nursing homes and other long-term care facilities across the United States with coronavirus cases. More than 68,000 residents and staff members at those facilities have contracted the virus, and more than 11,000 have died. That means nearly a quarter of the deaths in the pandemic have been linked to long-term care facilities.”

And that’s just what we know so far.

Cuomo’s Horrible Decisions

It should have been fairly simple for even the simpletons populating state and federal government to figure out that fragile, ill people trapped in close quarters would be the most susceptible to contracting the novel coronavirus. After all, the first known outbreak in the United States occurred in a nursing home in Washington state in late February. The virus spread quickly; at least 35 people died.

But “experts” were caught flat-footed. As they forced healthy children out of school and hounded joggers off public beaches, power-grabbing politicians secretly moved ailing seniors from hospitals to nursing homes—with fatal consequences.

And nowhere, of course, has the practice had a more deadly consequence than in New York. After failing  to prepare his state and the nation’s largest city adequately for the expected outbreak, Governor Andrew Cuomo issued a directive in late March ordering nursing home operators to readmit hospitalized residents.

“During this global health emergency, all NHs [nursing homes] must comply with the expedited receipt of residents returning from hospitals,” the state’s department of health directed in a memo dated March 25. “No resident shall be denied re-admission or admission to the NH solely based on a confirmed or suspected diagnosis of COVID-19. NHs are prohibited from requiring a hospitalized resident who is determined medically stable to be tested for COVID-19 prior to admission or readmission” (emphasis added).

For weeks, the crisis at New York nursing homes rapidly unfolded but pleas for help fell on deaf ears in Albany. The New York Post reported last week that an executive for a Brooklyn facility overrun with sick residents begged the Health Department to allow him to send suspected COVID-19 residents to the empty U.S. naval ship docked outside of the city.

“We don’t have the ability to cohort right now based on staffing and we really want to protect our other patients,” Donny Tuckman, chief executive officer for Cobble Health Center, wrote on April 9. At least 55 people have died at Tuckman’s facility as state officials failed to respond.

Nursing homes in Queens and the Bronx have suffered similar horror stories. The Post reports that about 3,500 nursing home residents in New York have succumbed to the disease, roughly one-quarter of the state’s total fatalities, a trendline that mirrors the nation’s overall results.

But Cuomo, enjoying sky-high approval ratings despite his incompetence, which has resulted in his state representing about 32 percent of the nation’s death toll, refuses to accept blame for the tragedy at his state’s nursing homes and long-term care facilities.

Following critical coverage in both the Times and the Post last week, Cuomo insisted it wasn’t his responsibility to ensure health care workers at these facilities were properly protected. “We have been helping them with more [personal protective equipment] but, again, it’s not our job,” Cuomo said on April 22. The same governor who has shuttered nearly every private business in his state claimed he didn’t “run” private nursing homes.

But rather than investigate the reckless public officials who provided the deadly guidance in the first place or offer extra assistance to the distressed system, Cuomo ordered an investigation into beleaguered nursing homes for failing to comply with state regulations.

Calamities Across the States

New York, sadly, is not an outlier. California and New Jersey issued similar orders. According to New Jersey’s tracker, roughly 3,000 COVID-19 lab-confirmed or suspected deaths are tied to a long-term care facility—that’s half the Garden State’s total fatalities.

One-third of Illinois’ nearly 2,000 COVID-19 fatalities now are linked to long-term care facilities. Last week, Michigan officials claimed 2,218 of the state’s 3,085 COVID-19 decedents were nursing home residents. “Deaths at nursing homes and rest homes make up 56.3 percent of overall coronavirus deaths in Massachusetts as of Sunday,” the Boston Globe reported over the weekend.

In fact, according to a Kaiser Family Foundation study, at least half of the fatalities in five other states—Delaware, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Utah—are tied to long term care facilities. “COVID-19 has had a disproportionate effect on people who reside or work in long-term care facilities, including the 1.3 million individuals in nursing homes; 800,000 in assisted living facilities; 75,000 in intermediate care facilities; and 3 million people who work in skilled nursing or residential care facilities,” the April 23 report concludes.

What’s even more heartbreaking about the systematic failure to protect nursing homes is knowing that so many died before seeing a loved one as family members are kept away both from COVID-19 patients and noninfected residents. It is a heartless, cruel fate and undoubtedly it will wreak long lasting emotional damage on family and friends left behind.

This is a national tragedy on many levels and an inexcusable, avoidable one at that.

Rather than focus on how to safeguard the most vulnerable among us, politicians have been preening for cable news cameras, blaming the president, halting the sale of vegetable seeds, and warning against small dinner parties in private homes. A tragedy, a failure, and a disgrace.