COVID-19 death toll in nursing homes a scandal
The viral disease and death tearing through many of the nursing homes in Connecticut shows a major failure in the state’s otherwise strong response to the COVID-19 pandemic. While the administration of Gov. Ned Lamont has done a good job of promoting social distancing to protect the general public, it clearly did not do enough when it came to nursing homes.
As the week ended Friday the number of confirmed COVID-19 related deaths in nursing homes pushed past 700 and accounted for nearly half of the virus-related deaths in the state. But nursing home workers are telling the Connecticut news media that they believe the actual fatalities are significantly higher and have not been fully calculated.
The threat nursing homes faced was apparent. Elderly and health-compromised individuals are known to be highly susceptible to acquiring and dying from this new virus. That defines the populace of a nursing home. Add in the clustering of so many compromised people together and the potential for the highly contagious virus to quickly spread was obvious.
SEIU Healthcare 1199 reported Friday that more than 1,000 of its members working in the homes have tested positive for the coronavirus, about one in seven. That has reduced the available staff to care for patients, putting greater stress and adding greater risks for those remaining. And union workers are present in only 69 of the state’s 213 nursing homes, one-third, meaning the number of nursing home workers who have come down sick is probably around 3,000 statewide. By extension, the families of these workers are also endangered.
Nursing homes were sealed off from the general public early in the pandemic, but this was no guarantee of keeping the virus at bay. Workers come and go.
Two major issues have contributed to the failure to better protect these patients and the typically low-paid workers who care for them. Many of the workers said they have not been given the necessary protective gear to safely shield them and those in their care from the virus.
Nursing homes should have been better prepared. The state should have been better. The country should have been better prepared. And the Trump administration should have acted faster to use its emergency authority to take control of industries providing this equipment so that it could be distributed as needed and where needed. It still hasn't. Instead prices have spiked due to a Wild West competition for the personal protective equipment.
The second major issue has been a lack of testing. Better testing could have identified infected personnel and residents earlier and allowed their isolation. But the state can’t be faulted on that count. Testing has been slow to ramp up nationwide.
It is also fair to note Connecticut is not alone. The failure to control COVID-19 has been a scandalous problem in nursing homes and Veterans Affairs medical facilities across the country.
While we welcome Gov. Lamont’s decision to send inspectors to all the nursing homes in the state to assess the problem, we must view with credulity the lack of alarm resulting from those inspections. Nursing home staffers report having to resort to wearing trash bags in a desperate attempt to protect themselves and patients. Is that reflected in the reports?
The state needs to do all it can to acquire PPE and distribute it to the nursing homes. Lamont may well have to tap the state’s $2.5 billion rainy day fund to direct emergency aid at the problem. Technical upgrades to improve and provide better filtration in the heating and ventilation systems should be explored.
In hindsight, this was a tragedy waiting to happen. Lessons must be learned and future improvements made. But right now the focus has to be on getting a handle on this disaster. It must be the highest of priorities for the Lamont administration. Meanwhile, our elected leaders in Washington need to do all they can to access federal help.
The Day editorial board meets regularly with political, business and community leaders and convenes weekly to formulate editorial viewpoints. It is composed of President and Publisher Tim Dwyer, Managing Editor Izaskun E. Larrañeta, staff writer Erica Moser and retired deputy managing editor Lisa McGinley. However, only the publisher and editorial page editor are responsible for developing the editorial opinions. The board operates independently from the Day newsroom.