Capital Region

Foss: Do more to protect nursing home residents from COVID-19

Foss says New York State has failed nursing home residents with its handling of the crisis.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Foss says New York State has failed nursing home residents with its handling of the crisis.

Categories: News, Opinion, Saratoga County, Schenectady County

The woman had nothing but praise for the Capital Region nursing home where her mother resides. 


“They’re as ready as they can be [for a patient with COVID-19],” she told me. “They’re prepared.” 

Her worry, she said, stemmed from a state mandate that nursing homes accept recovering hospital patients known to have coronavirus. 

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“This is something that’s been concerning to me since I first read about it,” the woman said. “Are we putting people at unnecessary risk?” 

When the history of COVID-19 is written, failing to protect nursing home residents from a virus that wreaks havoc in institutional settings will rank as one of the more egregious policy failures. 

Even with heightened vigilance and safeguards in place, nursing homes have struggled to contain a virus that is especially dangerous for the elderly and infirm. 

A New York Times analysis found that more than a quarter of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. are linked to long-term care facilities, and a recent Daily Gazette article documented the increasing number of deaths from COVID-19 at area nursing homes. 

The vulnerability of nursing homes to COVID-19 is widely known, which makes misguided policies like the one mandating that nursing homes admit residents carrying the virus all the more puzzling. 

Over the weekend, former New York Gov. George Pataki blasted the Cuomo administration’s handling of nursing homes amid COVID-19 and called for an investigation. 

The governor’s office issued a statement dismissing Pataki’s remarks as political, but they struck me as fairly reasonable. 

We have failed nursing home residents, and the sooner we admit it and take corrective action, the better off we’ll be. Nursing homes always had the potential to become COVID-19 hot spots. With better policies, at least some of the deaths we’re seeing might have been prevented. 

Let’s start with the policy of returning COVID-19 patients discharged from hospitals to nursing homes. 

Cuomo has said nursing homes have “no right” to object to taking these patients, and the state’s mandate requires homes that can’t properly care for them to arrange a transfer.

My question: Why can’t we develop a better system for dealing with this highly vulnerable population?

The state assembled a temporary field hospital at the Javits Center to handle COVID-19 overflow in a matter of days, which is laudable, but perhaps some of this energy would have been better spent creating or finding space for nursing home patients with COVID-19 to recover and quarantine. Instead, the problem of what to do with these patients has been dumped on overburdened nursing homes.

Another problem has been the lack of protective gear, such as gowns and masks, and COVID-19 test kits for nursing homes. 

“The initial epicenter of the pandemic in the United States was a nursing home outside Seattle, where at least 40 residents have died of COVID-19,” observed an article in The Atlantic by Elaine Godfrey, whose grandmother died of the virus while living in a nursing home. “Yet following that outbreak, health officials did not prioritize the residents and staff of such facilities in the rest of the country to receive lifesaving testing and equipment.” 

Keeping COVID-19 out of nursing homes requires regular testing of staff and residents, even if they don’t have symptoms. Those who do test positive should be barred or removed from the facility until the virus is out of their system.  

One disturbing article, from the New York Post, describes how the state Department of Health allowed nurses and other staff who tested positive for the virus to continue treating patients at Hornell Gardens, a nursing home in Steuben County where at least 15 people have died.

The staff who tested positive were asymptomatic, but that’s certainly no reason to let them continue working at a nursing home.

We’ve known for some time that asymptomatic people can spread the disease, and permitting people who carry COVID-19 but lack symptoms to interact with the elderly is a recipe for disaster.

One of the sad truths of COVID-19 is that some demographics are more at risk of dying than others, and nursing home residents might be the most imperiled.

Had we done a better job of protecting them, the pandemic’s death toll would not be as great.

Reach Sara Foss at [email protected] Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s.

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