Commentary: Nursing homes need support as COVID continues

An early focus of the outbreak, they are caring for a vulnerable population and deserve our patience.

By Joseph Kertis / For The Herald

It has been over three months since the first case of COVID-19 appeared in a Kirkland nursing home. Since then, we had come to realize the full impact of the virus and its implications for seniors, which were only predictions when we first became aware of it.

The United States’ nursing homes have been devastated, and their residents have become the single hardest-hit demographic in America. On June 1, USA Today released a report that ties more than 40,000 American deaths to nursing homes. This number is nearly twice what the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services reported a week prior. Sadly, both are assumed to be gross underestimations. The larger total is roughly 40 percent of the total national death toll from the coronavirus.

Thankfully, despite the continuous headlines rolling in about another nursing home tragedy with multiple deaths and confirmed cases, numbers of new deaths and cases have begun to decrease significantly. This can be attributed to various factors, such as the implementation of guidelines that restrict visitation and other activities that put residents at risk, as well as the natural progression of the virus and improved sanitation practices.

A significant factor has also been the ability of facilities to obtain personal protective equipment (PPE) and other supplies used to prevent the spread of the virus. Many supplies that were not available during the early days of the pandemic have become available through an improved supply chain and a decrease in panic buying.

With numbers going down, many are wondering when things will return to normal for nursing homes in a state that was the first to have such cases. While those who are not personally invested may feel it is prudent to wait and keep the guidelines that were successful in suppressing the virus, residents and their loved ones are eagerly awaiting a return to normal.

The most significant factor in reducing infections — restrictions on visitation — has been perhaps the hardest to endure. Because nursing homes were asked to limit workers to the bare minimum, they have had an incredibly difficult time keeping family members satisfied. So many calls come in each day to check on the status of residents that facilities cannot keep up, and this has caused problems. Some people just want to know if their loved one is still alive and have taken to showing up and facilities and gathering outside of residents’ windows to put eyes on them.

These circumstances have led to ill-will among many people who feel nursing homes aren’t doing enough out of fear for their loved one’s safety. But, given the hand they were dealt in this pandemic, it is hard to imagine what anyone else could have done better. Nursing homes are a significant part of this country’s health-care system, and many people have been shocked to learn that hospitals have been forcing overflow patients into these long-term care facilities as a way of managing their own overwhelm.

Many of the patients are COVID-19 positive and potentially infectious, and some states are forcing nursing homes to accept them. Many Washington facilities have refused such patients, even though they are turning down revenue they desperately need at this time.

The senior care industry is responsible for taking care of a generation that either has no one left to help them, or nobody who wants to. Losing a significant portion of its residents and being viewed as one of the least safe places in the country has done nothing to help an already struggling field. There may be nowhere left for the people who need senior care services to go without a return to normal in the foreseeable future.

No one knows when things will return to normal. But there are some promising signs. Until then, it is essential to be patient and understand that nursing homes happen to house the most at-risk population in the world.

Let’s give them a break and show compassion for doing a job that nobody else wanted to.

Joseph Kertis is a former health care professional with experience in the field of substance abuse and addiction recovery. He is a featured author of the health-care website Addicted.org.

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