Capital Region

Foss: Let’s reimagine nursing homes post COVID-19

Ingersoll Place in Niskayuna, where residents have died of COVID-19.
PHOTOGRAPHER:
Ingersoll Place in Niskayuna, where residents have died of COVID-19.

Categories: News, Opinion, Schenectady County

“I take full responsibility,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said back in March, when discussing his decision to close non-essential businesses throughout the state. “If someone is unhappy, somebody wants to blame someone … blame me. There is no one else who is responsible for this decision.” 

Cuomo’s comments were refreshing – a “buck stops here” moment to remember. 

At least, I remember them. 


Two months later, they stand in stark contrast to Cuomo’s remarks about the high number of COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes. 

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Asked over the weekend what he would say to families who have lost loved ones in nursing homes and are looking for accountability, Cuomo pointed to the 139 New Yorkers who died from the virus in the previous 24 hours. 

“Who is accountable for those 139 deaths?” he said. “How do we get justice for those families who had 139 deaths? What is justice? Who can we prosecute for those deaths? … Mother Nature? God? Where did this virus come from? … Older people, vulnerable people are going to die by this virus. That is going to happen, despite whatever you do. Because with all our progress as a society we can’t keep everyone alive.” 

Nothing in Cuomo’s response is wrong, exactly. 

But his rambling ruminations on accountability and justice skirt the question of whether New York did all it could do to safeguard the lives of those most vulnerable to the virus. 

Unmentioned is the state’s disastrous policy of forcing nursing homes to readmit patients who tested positive for COVID-19. 

How much damage did this policy, reversed last week as the nursing home death toll continued to climb, cause? 

If the governor is to be believed, we shouldn’t bother trying to answer that question. 

Instead we should ponder unanswerable questions about accountability, death and justice, and the fact that, despite all our scientific advances, people still die. 

Pressed on the issue of nursing homes, the governor who once declared “I take full responsibility” disappears into pseudo-philosophical babble that skirts the immensely troubling fact that nursing home residents may account for one-half of U.S. COVID-19 deaths. 

Could all of these deaths have been prevented? 

Of course not. 

But better policies and a bigger push to get poorly equipped nursing homes the personal protective equipment they needed might have made a difference.

Exacerbating the problem is the unfortunate state of the nursing home industry. 

While many nursing homes are well-run and well-staffed, many are not. Poor infection control was an issue before COVID-19 began ravaging nursing homes all over America. 

As Charles C. Camosy, an assistant professor of theological and social ethics at Fordham University, observed in an op-ed in the New York Times on Monday, “Even before the pandemic, these were places where what I call ‘throwaway culture’ was thriving. The staff aren’t paid a living wage, often have poor training and are hopelessly overworked. The residents face elder abuse, and large percentages of them are desperately lonely.” 

Cuomo has put together a task force to “reimagine education” in a post-COVID-19 world. 

Why not a task force to reimagine nursing homes? 

A task force to reimagine nursing homes could look at how best to help long-term care facilities protect residents, while also developing a longer-range plan for overhauling an industry in bad need of transformation. 

We’re going to be living with COVID-19 for a long time. 

If we don’t do a better job of helping nursing homes keep residents and staff safe, a lot more residents will die. 

We can pin the blame on God or Mother Nature, but figuring out where we’ve erred in the past, correcting our mistakes and implementing new and better policies might be a better approach.

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

 

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