COVID-19 is spreading like wildfire through the nation’s nursing homes. Already, more than 56,000 residents and staff of nursing homes and other long-term care facilities — including 708 in Colorado — have died from COVID-19. They account for more than 44% of U.S. coronavirus deaths, even though less than 1% of Americans live in nursing homes. This is a national disgrace.
While Gov. Jared Polis has been very proactive in Colorado, including the formation of an executive level Residential Care Strike Force Team early in the crisis here, we need Congress to act immediately. Bipartisan solutions to protect nursing home residents and staff are long overdue.
To date, Congress has passed four bills to address the devastating impact of coronavirus on Americans. Yet, these bills barely touch on the crisis raging in long-term care facilities. With only a few weeks until the district work period in August, what will it take for Congress to take meaningful action to protect nursing home residents?
For five months, nursing homes have been a hotbed for the virus — yet basic precautions to protect residents and staff are still not in place. AARP has heard gut-wrenching accounts from thousands of family members worried about their loved ones in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.
Jami Shepherd of Littleton told us that when her mother died in April (not of the coronavirus), she was able to be by her side because her mother was in a facility that allowed it with proper personal protective equipment, or PPE, and the staff of the facility was tested on a regular basis. But it was quite different in the facility where her uncle is housed not far away. She lamented a lack of communication and qualified staff.
“It breaks my heart that it has had to come to this, a virus breakout so that the world can see how these facilities treat our loved ones,” Shepherd said.
It’s time for lawmakers to come together to pass a bipartisan COVID-19 response package with dedicated funding and five key policies to protect seniors living in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities:
• Ensure regular, ongoing testing and adequate PPE.
• Create transparency focused on daily, public reporting of cases and deaths in facilities, communication with families when loved ones are discharged or transferred, and accountability for how billions of dollars in federal funding is spent.
• Require access to facilitated virtual visitation.
Provide better care for residents through adequate staffing, oversight, and access to in-person formal advocates, called long-term care ombudsmen.
• Stop attempts to provide blanket immunity for long-term care facilities related to COVID-19.
The hopeful news is that legislation has been introduced in Congress that will help save the lives of nursing home residents. However, what remains missing is the will to make these older Americans and their families a priority. Our elected congressional leaders must act now to protect Colorado’s long-term care residents and staff before the death toll rises even higher. It is literally life or death.
Bob Murphy is the state director of AARP Colorado, which has more than 670,000 members.