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Opinion: Congress must step up to stop nursing home deaths

By Gaylene Miller

State Director, AARP West Virginia

Less than one percent of the nation’s population lives in nursing homes. But, residents and staff of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities account for 40 percent of COVID-19 deaths nationally.

Gaylene Miller

Weeks before cities and states began closing down, COVID-19 was already ravaging America’s long-term care facilities. The country’s first major outbreak, at a nursing home in Washington State, was reported on February 29.

Four months later, more than 50,000 residents and staff of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities have died.

While West Virginia was the first state in the nation to test nursing home residents and staff for the coronavirus, nearly half of all the deaths in West Virginia have been related to nursing home outbreaks. Right now, no state is doing enough to stop the spread in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. Now it is time for Congress to act.

To keep residents of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities safe and their families connected, Congress must ensure that all facilities: regularly test residents and staff; have and correctly use personal protective equipment (PPE); publicly report COVID-19 cases and deaths daily; and facilitate virtual visits between residents and their families.

Understanding and containing the spread of COVID-19 requires ongoing, regular testing of all long-term care residents and workers. With rigorous testing, nursing homes can identify cases and prevent the spread of the virus.

Congress must also ensure all facilities have a sufficient supply of PPE, like masks, gowns, gloves, and face shields, to protect workers and residents. And, facilities must stiffen protocols for infection control.  A recent Government Accountability Office report found more than 80 percent of nursing homes were cited for infection prevention failures—before the pandemic.  If facilities ignored basic procedures like handwashing before an outbreak, they stood no chance of keeping residents safe from the coronavirus.

Families and the public need the facts about their loved ones and the facilities where they live. Congress must demand that nursing homes and other long-term care facilities

publicly report the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths among residents and staff daily.  Complete transparency will help public health officials direct resources and allow residents, prospective residents, and their families to make informed decisions about their lives.

We also need to keep families connected during this challenging time. Congress must require nursing homes and other long-term care facilities to make available and facilitate virtual visits between residents and their families—even as some facilities begin to allow limited in-person visits. Loved ones serve as additional eyes and ears in facilities and are often the first to spot changes in a resident’s physical or mental health. Virtual visits can help fill these gaps and reduce the isolation residents face while visitors are banned or not allowed to visit regularly.

Our mothers, fathers, grandparents, and spouses—who worked hard and built this country—are dying in record numbers. They are dying scared, alone and away from their loved ones, often before their time. States cannot fight this battle alone.  Congress must act to support nursing home residents, staff and families to stem the loss of life.

— Gaylene Miller, is the State Director of AARP WV which serves more than 300,000 members 50 and older in West Virginia.

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