COVID-19 outbreaks highlight how we’re doing our seniors wrong

coronavirus researcher

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The COVID-19 death toll at a long-term care facility in Henrico County – at last count, 50 – is emblematic of what we’re facing as we try to get the contagion under control.

The tragedy unfolding at Canterbury Rehabilitation & Healthcare Center is unfortunately something that we’re seeing across the long-term care landscape.

Facilities across the country, working on tight operating margins, with underpaid, overworked staff, are proving to be the perfect petri dish for the mass spread of a contagion like COVID-19, which has killed more than 65,000 Americans, with many of those deaths coming in long-term care facilities.

Frustrating thing there is, we don’t know with any certainty just how many people are dying in those facilities, because only 23 states are publicly reporting long-term care facility deaths.

In those that are, like Virginia, the data is sobering.

Fifty-seven percent of the 713 COVID-19 deaths in Virginia – 405, as of Tuesday’s update from the Virginia Department of Health – have been reported in long-term care facilities.

With the media focus on the death toll, there has been little attention given to what it is that is driving the numbers ever higher, from the public, and, distressingly, from decision-makers.

The public-policy approach has been a massive social lockdown aimed at limiting the spread of the virus in the general population, where the impact in terms of hospitalizations and deaths has shown, from the data, to be comparable to the seasonal flu.

What we’re doing to ourselves with the lockdown approach does nothing to address what is going on in long-term care facilities, where the impact of COVID-19 is nothing like you see in even the worst flu season.

As Gov. Ralph Northam announced on Monday that the state is moving toward a phased reopening that will begin on May 15, more needs to be done to address what is going on in long-term care facilities.

Which isn’t to say that this is a Virginia-only issue, not even close.

The problem in long-term care is systemic nationwide, and it stems largely from a lack of resources being made available for long-term care.

This is, to put it bluntly, the wages for trying to do long-term care for seniors on the cheap.

In Virginia, according to an analysis by the Virginian-Pilot, 77 percent of the state’s long-term care facilities have been cited in the past three years for failing to meet infection prevention and control regulations, many of them, according to the analysis, repeat offenders.

It’s often basic stuff – staffers not washing their hands, not wearing masks near contagious patients.

Maybe if we required more staff, mandated better training, provided more public oversight, maybe you wouldn’t have the violations, which even though they seem minor from a one-off perspective, little things add up and become big things, as we’re seeing now.

More staff, better training, more public oversight – they all take time, and they all cost money.

For whatever reason, we haven’t been willing to commit the time and money to improving the quality of care in our long-term care facilities.

The COVID-19 outbreak is an ongoing unmitigated disaster, but the lack of headlines about flu and pneumonia outbreaks in facilities every winter doesn’t mean this isn’t an ongoing problem, it just means we don’t seem to care to want to address the ongoing problem.

Whatever we take from our experience with COVID-19, in addition to how much there is to watch on Netflix and Hulu, and how to use Zoom to stay in touch, doing our seniors in long-term care environments needs to be actually at the tippy-top of the list.

Story by Chris Graham


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