Nursing homes, not hospitals, are the “front line” in the battle against COVID-19, and they desperately need help getting more protective masks and testing to halt the deadly spread of the novel coronavirus, Mark Parkinson, head of the largest U.S. nursing home association, told a CNN audience Thursday afternoon.

“What we now need is the country to rally around nursing homes and assisted living buildings the same way it has around hospitals and get us the equipment and the tests we need.

“We feel like we’ve been forgotten,” the president and CEO of the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living confirmed to CNN Newsroom host Kate Bolduan. “I think it’s great the way we’ve rallied around the hospitals. We adore the hospital workers. They’re heroes and we completely support that, but the frontlines are nursing homes. The people who are going to the hospitals are coming from nursing homes.

“If we don’t stop it in nursing homes, we’re not going to stop it in hospitals. So far, the country just hasn’t figured that out.”

‘Two hands tied’

Parkinson first got the nation’s attention a month ago during the early days of the outbreak when he told Bolduan that “COVID-19 is almost a perfect killing machine” for the elderly. On Thursday, he said some progress had been made but huge hurdles still remain.

“It’s slowly getting better, but we’re still fighting this incredible battle with two hands tied behind our back,” he said, calling one “hand” a lack of masks. “We don’t have enough masks … and without an adequate number of masks, we just can’t stop it.”

The other “hand” is a lack of complete testing.

“We can get tests, but it’s taking too long to get the results back, so oftentimes by the time we know we have COVID in our building, it’s already spread,” Parkinson said. 

“The really good news, though, is that we now have many examples of buildings able to keep COVID out or, more important, if they can find out early on that COVID’s in the building, they can isolate it.”

While personal protective equipment shortages can be at least partly attributed to interrupted manufacturing in China, “Somebody’s going to have to figure out what went wrong with testing in the United States. The reality is there hasn’t been enough equipment or testing for anybody in the healthcare spectrum,” Parkinson said.

Don’t pull loved ones

Bolduan asked Parkinson if he agreed with the Los Angeles County public health director who said Tuesday that it would be “perfectly appropriate” to pull loved ones from long-term care facilities.

“In the overwhelming number of cases, that would be a huge mistake,” Parkinson responded, citing the advanced age, shortcomings in activities of daily living and high incidence of dementia in the nursing home population. “They simply can’t be isolated at home. They are in a safe environment in a long-term care facility — if the equipment is there to take care of them adequately. In the vast majority of those cases, bringing those folks into the general population would be very dangerous right now.”

Time to ‘overreact’

The CNN host also drew on Parkinson’s perspective as a former governor of Kansas. Republican legislative leaders there overrode the current governor’s call to maintain social distancing and not gather in groups for Easter services this weekend.

“We need governors to ‘overreact’ right now, not underreact,” Parkinson said. “When we look back on the history of this, we’ll see that the governors … who shut their states down before it was obvious, when there were very few numbers of cases in their state, I think they will be the real heroes. They will have saved lives not just across the state but also in nursing homes and throughout entire communities.”

Parkinson acknowledged that “it gets tricky any time religion is involved” but said there are clearly times for exceptions to usual practices.

“Easter is about sacrifice and life,” he said. “We have a chance this Sunday to not just celebrate Easter, we have a chance to live it, by all of us making our own sacrifice, creating life. I encourage everyone to stay at home and do that.”