This editorial published April 27 in The Washington Post.
More than a fifth of the 55,000 known covid-19 deaths in the United States have occurred at nursing homes and other elder-care facilities. Federal and state governments have largely turned a blind eye, often making no effort to test residents or staffs and leaving relatives, surrounding communities and the public in the dark.
In at least a half-dozen states officials have refused to make public the names of facilities wracked by the virus, even as residents and employees there are dying. The states’ nominal reason for their secrecy, privacy protections for institutions, is akin to refusing to identify an airline whose plane has crashed.
With few exceptions, states and the federal government have made little or no effort to verify the disease’s death toll at nursing homes and similar facilities, conservatively estimated at 11,000 in a tally by the Associated Press.
The effects of government negligence and lack of transparency are incalculable but profound: families uncertain whether to place their elderly loved ones in a nursing home or remove them from one. Hospitals blithely transferring fragile patients to homes overwhelmed by unannounced outbreaks of the pandemic. Homes with no means to provide testing left to guess at a diagnosis when residents or staff succumb.
A survey by The Post found that almost a tenth of the nation’s 15,000 nursing homes have publicly reported that residents or staff have tested positive for the virus. But the available data are staggeringly incomplete — as in New York, by far the country’s hardest-hit state, where officials have released the names only of homes where at least five people have died.
Many nursing homes have made good-faith efforts to keep relatives informed when outbreaks occur; others have not or simply don’t know. The federal government recently mandated that residents and relatives — but not the public — be alerted when an individual in a home has tested positive. Yet the order is all but meaningless without testing, to which an industry group estimates that just one-third of facilities have access. Just one governor, Jim Justice (R) of West Virginia, has ordered universal testing at every nursing home in the state.
Staffing shortages at elder-care facilities, widespread for years before the pandemic, have probably accelerated the spread of infection as many employees hold down simultaneous jobs at two or more homes, thereby spreading it as they shuttle from one to another.
The government’s abdication has left most nursing homes flying blind in a pandemic that has made them uniquely vulnerable. The absence of transparency and data put not only the facilities but also the public in the crosshairs of the coronavirus.