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Our national shame: COVID-19 in nursing homes

Even as states begin to reopen, the death toll in nursing homes remains a disgrace.

Health care workers carry personal belongings of a nursing home patient to a waiting ambulance.
Health care workers carry personal belongings of a nursing home patient to a waiting ambulance.
AP file photo

Even as states begin to reopen from lockdowns imposed because of COVID-19, the death toll in nursing homes from the disease remains a national disgrace.

Any easing of lockdowns without a massive infusion of resources to protect residents of nursing homes and assisted living centers, who otherwise will be in even greater danger, should shame us. Any assertion, until then, that the worst has passed would be a fiction.

At least 40% of our nation’s COVID-19 deaths, which approached 100,000 as of Monday morning, have been in nursing homes, the Kaiser Family Foundation has found. The percentage in some states, such as Ohio and Minnesota, is above 70%.

Nursing homes that care for significant numbers of African Americans and Latinos have been hardest hit, though for reasons that are unclear. Those nursing homes are twice as likely to have at least one coronavirus case than homes that, for the most part, care for white people, according to a New York Times analysis.

In Illinois, 75% of nursing homes that are at least 25% black or Latino have had at least one coronavirus case, according to the Times analysis, while only 24% of nursing homes that are less than 5% black or Latino have had a case.

As we move out of the Memorial Day weekend, we should remember as well that nursing homes care for millions of military veterans. And over the next four years, at least 1 million more veterans will become eligible for taxpayer-covered nursing home care because of injuries related to their military service.

How can we thank our veterans for their service?

By stopping the coronavirus in its tracks in nursing homes.

What can be done

What’s needed is a national response, which will never be led by President Donald Trump. That would require compassion and competence.

But, as University of Chicago professor Tamara Konetzka told a Senate subcommittee last Thursday, Congress could authorize an “emergency influx of resources” for nursing homes, especially those that face the highest risk of a coronavirus outbreak.

Among the steps Congress should take are the following:

  • Expand federal coronavirus reporting requirements to include assisted living centers, where some 800,000 older or disabled people live. Unlike nursing homes, assisted living centers do not now have to report COVID-19 cases and deaths. This would make it easier for state and federal officials to identify hotspots, and families would be better able to choose safe facilities.
  • Address chronic staffing shortages in nursing homes, made worse by the pandemic, by providing and requiring basic employment benefits, including paid sick leave, hazard pay and health insurance. Nursing home workers are as much on the front lines in the fight against the pandemic as doctors and nurses.
  • Make sure that a steady stream of masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment flows to facilities for the elderly.
  • Test all nursing home residents every week, or at least twice a month, as recommended by Konetzka, who has been studying nursing homes for 25 years.
  • Ease qualifications for families to obtain Medicare-funded home care for elderly relatives. Fewer Americans would have to move to nursing homes, where the danger of exposure to the coronavirus is higher.
  • Provide nursing home operators with training in infection control. In 2017, nearly two of five nursing homes nationwide were cited with inadequate infection control.
  • Create “surge teams” that would identify the neediest nursing homes and provide extra staff and technical expertise.

We can save lives

Yes, national studies have shown that death rates from the coronavirus are highest in nursing homes that care for black and Latino people, including in homes that are highly rated.

But a Sun-Times study last month of 120 long-term-care facilities in Illinois also found that government evaluations of nursing homes still matter.

About 28% of the deaths from COVID-19 complications, the Sun-Times found, happened in nursing homes with the lowest federal rating and only 6% in the facilities with the highest rating.

The lesson is not surprising: The better people are cared for in nursing homes, the longer they live — even during a pandemic.

The United States should accept nothing less.

Send letters to letters@suntimes.com.