Liza Berger headshot
Liza Berger

Outrage. That is the only word that comes to mind to adequately explain the devolving situation that has occurred for nursing home providers as a result of the novel coronavirus.

Just consider the sequence of events: The country’s first outbreak of COVID-19 occurs at Life Care Center of Kirkland in Washington state. The virus spreads through the country, forcing the economy to shut down, taxing intensive care units at hospitals and leaving a trail of death — and tears — at nursing homes throughout the country. As of last week, the death toll at long-term care facilities skyrocketed to more than 5,500 deaths, more than doubling from the week before. The pace is believed to have picked up from there.

Meanwhile, stories of particular ugliness punctuate the news: Authorities remove 17 bodies from a mortuary building outside a facility in Andover, NJ. A facility in Riverside, CA, is forced to evacuate residents because staff fail to show up for work. 

And then there are the apparent smackdowns: Lawsuits by family members, understandably angry for  the deaths of their loved ones. The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services stepping up enforcement to the tune of $1,000 a week for failing to report COVID-19 cases. 

The heads of the largest nursing home associations are acutely aware of the complicated nature of the field — the extremely difficult work that goes on in caring for the elderly, the reality that workers are woefully underpaid and, yes, the likelihood that many facilities could have done a better job communicating with family members and residents about the virus. But they know this virus is indeed an enemy of epic proportions. To muster a modicum of strength against it, they have asked for ammunition, which comes in the most basic form of personal protective equipment — such as masks — and test kits.

Is anyone listening? 

Nursing homes did not ask for this virus. They are a victim in the truest sense of the word, caught off-guard by an enemy that was unknown to humankind six months ago and preys on the most vulnerable. Those would be the very fragile individuals who enter providers’ doors every single day. Yet nursing homes have emerged as the whipping boy for the nation’s poor response.

The indignity of it all. 

Liza Berger is Senior Editor at McKnight’s Long-Term Care News.