Thursday 30 September 2021

Nursing Home Abuse During Times of COVID-19


                                                                           Photo: NPR

COVID-19 has taken a terrible toll on Canadian long term care residents. Over 50% of all deaths from COVID in this country occurred in LTC or seniors' residences. I spoke with Mindy Fried, host of The Shape of Care podcast about the national scandal of COVID-related nursing home abuses HERE.  So, when I was approached to host a guest blog post about similar horrific examples of a systemic failure to protect frail seniors from the myriad effects of the pandemic in the USA, of course I said YES. Read on, because this is a story that affects every one of us everywhere. - Donna

While the COVID-19 pandemic has taken a toll on virtually every industry, assisted living facilities and nursing homes -- which have remained hot spots for coronavirus cases throughout the pandemic -- have been hit particularly hard. So far, the virus has taken the lives of over 134,000 individuals in nursing homes in the United States, a staggering number considering about 1.4 million people currently live in group homes across the nation. 

But it’s not just the coronavirus that’s endangering the lives of our elderly during the pandemic. Nursing homes, regardless of their quality and reputation, are facing sharp scrutiny over negligence concerns in the face of COVID-19 and beyond, with lawsuit upon lawsuit citing severe understaffing, prolonged isolation, unhygienic conditions, physical and mental abuse, and gross negligence, which is described as the deliberate or reckless disregard for a resident’s health and safety. 

 The stories of those who have lost loved ones to COVID-19 in nursing homes are nothing short of devastating. Children and grandchildren of group home residents had to spend the better part of last year without seeing their family members, many of which depended upon these visits for daily support in activities like eating, bathing, communicating with nursing home staff, and emotional support. 

Families recounted instances of finding their loved ones in severe states of dehydration and malnutrition, with untreated bedsores, mental decline, and lack of measurements to prevent virus exposure. In some cases, family members of previously healthy residents were called with the news that their loved one had suddenly passed from COVID, or from what was listed on some death certificates as “failure to thrive.” 

At the height of the pandemic, families often reported that they weren’t being notified of changes to the health of their loved ones. And when they were notified, their requests of taking the patient to the emergency room or to see their doctor offsite were often denied.  

A wide-ranging problem

The problem with nursing home’s negligence when it comes to COVID-19 is not as straightforward as it may seem. In addition to severe understaffing, there’s the issue of unvaccinated nursing home staff potentially endangering the health of vulnerable residents. According to recent accounts, only about 60% of senior living staff members are vaccinated, and certain states report even lower rates. 

Unfortunately, after a couple of months of much-needed respite from COVID cases, numbers have started ticking up again. Cases of breakthrough coronavirus infections among vaccinated residents, at least two of which have ended fatally, are increasingly being traced back to unvaccinated staff. An issue that has prompted many to push for vaccine mandates among healthcare workers, especially for those who work with vulnerable populations. 

Some cities and states, including Massachusetts, San Francisco, and Denver, have issued vaccine mandates for workers in high-risk settings such as nursing homes. Other states, like California, said that health providers must be vaccinated or undergo weekly COVID testing to continue working. 

But measures to make nursing homes safer for residents are being met with pushback from an industry that was already plagued with a high turnover rate and somewhat limited resources. In Florida, two bills are currently being considered that would make it harder for people to press charges against healthcare providers, including nursing home staff and management, over COVID-19 related cases. If approved, these laws would give long-term living facilities, among other health centers defined by the state, immunity against COVID-related lawsuits even in the event of negligence. 

Sadly, nursing home negligence and abuse are nothing new. A 2020 report found that more than 64% of nursing home staff members admitted to committing some sort of abuse or neglect at work. And research suggests that nearly 25% of group home residents have experienced at least one instance of physical abuse. Ultimately, what the pandemic did was uncovering -- and amplifying -- challenges that were already there: an industry that overwhelms care staff to the point where they end up abusing and mistreating the old and the disabled, and a system that is in desperate need of a structural overhaul so it can start prioritizing the livelihood and wellbeing of our nation’s most vulnerable residents.

Phil Harris is a writer specializing in the fields of both medicine and health. He is passionate about topics in healthcare such as issues involving nursing home negligence and preventable medical errors, lack of insurance coverage, global health, as well as information that can benefit those in need.

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