July 14, 2020

When Will We Ever Learn?

Residents of long-term care facilities in the US have been hit harder by the COVID-19 pandemic than have any other group. They have almost all the known risk factors for becoming seriously ill with the disease: they are unambiguously old, with fully 41 percent over age 85, and almost all have one or more chronic diseases, generally multiple conditions that result in their needing personal care. To top it all off, they live in close proximity to one another, typically eating together in a common dining room and often sharing a room with another resident. As a result, nursing home residents account for at least one-third of U.S. COVID-19 deaths. In some states, such as Massachusetts, estimates by early May were that nursing home residents accounted for 60 percent of COVID-19 deaths. 

We learned from the devastating early experience with COVID-19 how to keep the corona virus from causing havoc in nursing homes. In particular, we came to understand the importance of protecting nursing home residents from staff members who might bring it into the facility. By testing staff regularly and mandating head to toe personal protective equipment, together with other draconian measures such as banning family visitors and restricting resident-to-resident interaction, the rate of illness, hospitalization and death among nursing homes residents plummeted. Now that the virus is again surging in the Sunbelt, with Florida, Arizona, and Texas reporting skyrocketing infection rates, how are nursing home residents faring in those areas?

The answer, in a word, is not well. The Florida Department of Health reported 3072 active cases in nursing homes and assisted living facilities as of July 13, up from 1408 on June 23. The rate had nearly doubled in two weeks.  Houston saw an 800 percent increase in cumulative new cases among nursing home residents between the end of May and the end of June—and Texas has more nursing homes than any other American state. 

Why is this happening? Only in mid-July did Florida announce it would test nursing home staff regularly. The government defined regularly as every other week—not likely to be often enough—but many facilities report no testing has taken place as yet. Phoenix nursing homes report a shortage of personal protective equipment, with 25 percent of facilities acknowledging they have only one week’s worth of masks, gowns, and gloves on hand for nursing assistants and other direct care personnel. 

So far, death rates have not soared the way they did in New York during the height of its outbreak, but they are beginning to rise. As epidemiologists point out, death is a “lagging indicator:” people first get sick, then some of them become sick enough to require hospitalization; next, some are admitted to the ICU, and then, over a period of weeks, the deaths start coming. The outbreaks began with younger people who ignored public health recommendations to wear masks, limit group gatherings (especially indoors), and maintain physical distance from others. Florida, Texas, Arizona, and other hot spots did not engage in a vigorous campaign to test people with symptoms, to isolate anyone with an infection, and to quarantine exposed individuals. The result was community spread. At that point, the outcome for nursing home residents is entirely predictable. Once COVID-19 is widespread in the community, it is going to make its way into nursing homes, carried by asymptomatic or minimally symptomatic staff members who do not wear adequate protective gear. And vulnerable older people who are dependent on staff members to go to the bathroom, to eat, to dress, and to bathe will themselves become ill. More and more of them will become very sick and many will die. 

States that experienced a major outbreak early in the course of the pandemic—in late March and much of April—learned through experience that in the absence of a vaccine or effective treatment, old-fashioned public health methods are the only scientifically sound and morally defensible way to act. The invasion of nursing homes has no doubt already begun in the states with soaring case rates; every hour of delay in instituting the only measures that we have just demonstrated can succeed will result in more viral transmission, more suffering, and more death.

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