John O’Connor

Well, we knew this day in pandemic history would eventually get here — and it officially arrived Thursday.

That’s when the World Health Organization announced COVID-19 is no longer a global health emergency. For its part, the United States will end the disease’s emergency status later this week.

If we were living in a “Wizard of Oz” movie, this might be where we join the Munchkins in singing “Ding dong, the witch is dead! 

Because for more than three years, the pandemic has treated long-term care like a punching bag. And it appears the beast has punched itself out. Well, almost.

“There’s still a public health threat out there, and we all see that every day in terms of the evolution of this virus, in terms of its global presence, its continued evolution and continued vulnerabilities in our communities, both societal vulnerabilities, age vulnerabilities, protection vulnerabilities, and many other things,” said Dr. Mike Ryan, executive director of WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme.

So yes, there are still a few puffs left in that cigar. But it’s pretty clear the end is near. And this is a good time for providers to feel some happiness. Or at least relief.

For any way you slice it, COVID-19 has been a lousy house guest.

Globally, there have been 765 million confirmed COVID-19 cases and 6.9 million deaths, according to WHO data. As of April 30, 13 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses have been administered.

The devastation in the long-term care sector has been particularly disheartening: Many thousands of resident and staff deaths, higher operating costs, unprecedented staffing challenges and lots of bad publicity.

Many facilities now find themselves barely scraping by. Others surely will not be around to welcome in the new year.

And it’s not like things were tippy top before the virus arrived. New long-term care construction had effectively been around zero for years prior. And despite massive gains in the nation’s elderly population, we now have fewer nursing homes today than we did three decades ago.

But as Mama used to say, it’s a bad cloud that doesn’t have some kind of silver lining.

As bad as the COVID-19 has been, it hasn’t been all bad. Call it tough love taken to ridiculous extremes, but the pandemic did fuel some improvements.

Here the list must start with infection control. Compared to the pre-Covid days, there really is no comparison. New protocols have been put in place and old practices have been more strictly enforced.

Moreover, the physical structure of many facilities has been adjusted in ways that stop viruses and other airborne bad guys from roaming unfettered. Patient isolation, social distancing, reductions in the cycling of residents and staff from the community to the facility are now far more common.

The result is that infections are down, and frankly, facilities are much safer places for residents and staff. That is no trifling matter.


•  In many states and at many facilities, communication with state and federal regulators have improved dramatically.

•  Facilities have become better at recruiting and managing employees.

•  Telehealth has been explored to a much greater extent. 

Then there’s this little sweetener nobody seems to be talking about: Payments at more than a few facilities have never been better. Between Medicare, Medicaid, various short-term governmental payment infusions and sweet tax breaks, more facilities are doing much better financially than they are letting on.

So the news here is not universally bad. Still and all, I don’t think many providers are hoping another killer virus comes along. In fact, the industry’s general attitude toward COVID-19 might well be summed up in these four words: goodbye and good riddance.

John O’Connor is editorial director for McKnight’s.

Opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News columns are not necessarily those of McKnight’s.