My obsession with podcasts began a few years ago, when I spent quite a bit of time on the road. Naturally, I found true crime podcasts the best sidekick for long solo drives, and my library remains stacked with episodes of “My Favorite Murder,” “In the Dark” and “American Nightmare.”
These shows put great storytelling front and center. And as maudlin — or sometimes salacious — as the details might be, when strung together well, they provide a weird sort of escapism. For an hour or so, I can lose myself in the search for justice and accountability.
Last month, my happy little escape led me to a nasty little intersection: The New York Time’s “The Daily” trained its microphones on the nursing home industry in a two-parter called, “When Covid Hit Nursing Homes.”
Combining a gripping first-person account with a contextual examination of New York’s COVID-19 decisions, reporter Amy Julia Harris attempts to illustrate the experience of nursing home patients and their families amid what looks like serious government mishandling.
Part 1’s subtitle, “My Mother Died Alone,” tells all you need to know about how this particular podcast is going to end.
But it’s the telling that’s important to survivors of many traumas, and that’s what Lorry Sullivan sounds like to me. Her mother had gone to a Long Island nursing home to recover from a leg injury just before COVID-19 hit New York. The family matriarch was one of about 70 patients who died of COVID-19 at that facility during the pandemic, Harris reports.
This story is as much about the death of Sullivan’s mother as it is the policy decisions that led up to it. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), whose policy to push hospitalized COVID-19 patients into nursing homes, and apparently cover up deaths that occurred there afterward, is the subject of Part 2.
Harris acknowledges that nursing homes were unequipped for the emergency and the order to accept COVID-19 patients. She acknowledges there were not enough staff, PPE or COVID tests to go around.
“A lot of nursing home operators really questioned this directive,” she tells listeners. “They were feeling really overwhelmed.”
Yet we never hear directly from the nursing home in this case, nor in many others that have made providers targets of mainstream reporting, public family complaints, and, increasingly, lawsuits.
We hear Cuomo’s voice regularly on Harris’ podcast, thanks to carefully cultivated press conference clips.
“We made a mistake in creating the void, when we didn’t provide information,” he says at one point, as the cover-up begins unfolding.
But what those whose family members died alone in nursing homes want more than half-apologies is to understand how and why decisions were made.
The world is just getting started with pandemic Monday-morning quarterbacking. But when the dust clears, one of the most painful lessons learned will undoubtedly revolve around communication.
During the early days of the crisis, nursing homes often found themselves so overwhelmed they couldn’t answer phones or connect isolated residents with family members. Some didn’t inform family and prospective patients if they had COVID-19 in their buildings until the feds ordered them to. In many cases, there was very little time to detail isolation policies and procedures for the public, much less push out cohesive messaging about the valiant efforts they were making to save lives.
Now, however, government officials and individual providers must start answering the questions they can about their COVID-19 handling, even if that means emphasizing the very many unknowns that made the last year a true catastrophe.
Acknowledging the painful, early lack of clarity may bring some relief to family members like Sullivan, a one-time Cuomo fan.
“As time went on and she saw what happened in nursing homes and heard (Cuomo) dismiss her pain of not having answers, she said she really felt betrayed,” Harris explains. “It was the insistence that the response was perfect, that there were very few mistakes, that really led her and so many other people to really be so angry with the Cuomo administration’s response.”
That’s a takeaway for providers and policymakers anywhere.
Kimberly Marselas is Senior Editor of McKnight’s Long-Term Care News. Follow her @KimMarselas.