Guy Farmer: COVID-19 hits nursing homes hard

In last Saturday's column I disclosed that I had considered moving to a nice senior residence in the Seattle suburbs last year in order to be closer to my family. That senior residence is located in Bothell, Washington, just a few miles from the Kirkland nursing home where the COVID-19 virus struck with a vengeance in late February. Kirkland turned out to be the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the United States.

Eighty of 130 patients and caregivers in that Kirkland nursing home tested positive for coronavirus, and more than 40 died. As I wrote last Saturday, I'm glad I decided to remain in my Kings Canyon home here in Carson. "Kirkland turned out to be a preview of what would happen across the country," the Wall Street Journal reported, as the COVID-19 pandemic swept across the U.S., causing more than 100,000 deaths to date, a disproportionate number of them in nursing homes.

ABC News reported last week that nearly 40 percent of COVID-19 deaths in the U.S. occur in nursing homes and that more than 50 percent of deaths occur in nursing homes in at least 14 states. Here in Nevada, the statistics are unreliable. State health authorities report only 102 coronavirus-related deaths in nursing homes among more than 400 fatalities in our state, with 19 of those deaths occurring in one Las Vegas nursing home. Frankly, I don't believe the relatively low number of fatalities because I think Nevada nursing home deaths are under-reported.

Federal and state officials were slow to understand how vulnerable nursing homes were as the COVID-19 virus attacked all 50 states. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has handled the pandemic quite well, decided to move some hospitalized COVID-19 positive seniors back into nursing homes before he realized his mistake. According to the Washington Examiner, "Policy failures… have contributed to the disaster, particularly the low prioritization of nursing homes for personal protective equipment and testing, lax enforcement of regulations and states (like New York) forcing nursing homes to accept COVID-19 patients from hospitals."

"It was predictable that nursing homes would become the riskiest place during a pandemic," former New York Lt. Gov. Betsy McCaughey wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed piece. "Yet state and federal officials treated them as an afterthought. The CDC and the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services didn't begin tracking nursing home deaths until the end of April."

As the Washington Examiner noted, nursing homes and senior residences "house residents in a relatively confined space with common areas where multiple people gather." And, as we know, some of those elderly residents have pre-existing conditions, which make them extremely vulnerable to the virus. Mark Parkinson, CEO of the American Health Care Association (AHCA), told the Examiner that "the (COVID-19) problem lies in a broken regulatory system. The system used to evaluate nursing homes measures too many things. When you survey too many things, then nothing becomes important." He called for "more collaboration" between regulators and nursing homes.

"All nursing homes need rigorous infection controls," McCaughey concluded. "The past 90 days have shown how lax standards turn deadly when a pandemic targets the elderly." As a card-carrying senior citizen, I couldn't agree more. I hope nursing homes around the country are now doing the right thing.

Apology/Correction: In my May 9 endorsements column I wrote that Supervisor Lori Bagwell was the only member of the Board of Supervisors to vote against the commercialization of so-called "recreational" marijuana. But my good friend and fellow journalist, Supervisor John Barrette, reminds me that he also voted against marijuana legalization. I apologize and regret the error.

Guy W. Farmer is the Appeal's senior political columnist.


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