By Patty Yannotta, Director of Lifestyle & Hospitality
Fellowship Senior Living
During the COVID-19 pandemic, it seemed everyday there was another news story reporting severe and extreme cases in nursing homes with large numbers of residents contracting the disease and passing away from it. These stories about our nation’s most vulnerable population losing their lives to COVID-19 is nothing short of devastating. What is making it worse is that families cannot visit their loved ones.
Many of these stories spoke volumes to me and I couldn’t imagine how awful it must have been to be a family member of a loved one in one of these communities or a caregiver working with so many residents infected with COVID-19.
I don’t think anyone will argue when I say that we can and must do more for our seniors. But even in the best of times, we need to be vigilant to ensure that these homes comply with regulations.
Senior living communities have a high concentration of seniors, many live within close quarters, and most have underlying health conditions—the perfect storm for high infection rates and high mortality rates. But I question how these communities be entirely at fault if critical testing kits, PPE including masks, gowns and gloves were not available to them to prevent the spread when the crisis began. Many of our senior living communities did not have more than a few weeks’ worth of supplies on hand, if they were lucky.
For an industry that already has its challenges with its image, this pandemic has just made things even more arduous and challenging.
And what about funding for this essential protective equipment, overtime, hazard pay, and other costs?
Everyone working in senior living in communities in NJ must now be swabbed for COVID-19 every week as recommended by the CDC. Testing kits are in high demand and are costly, not only to pay for the testing but paying for the labor time, too. Results need to be complied, tracked and reported. If a testing kit costs $100 each and you have 500 employees tested each week, the amount adds up to extraordinary totals. Insurance only covers so much, if anything, depending on the type of insurance.
There were other challenges besides lack of PPE. Few communities had staff on stand-by to fill in the gaps when nurses and essential workers became sick or simply quit because they were afraid of infecting their families or afraid of getting sick themselves. Many nurses, housekeepers, activities professionals and others on the front lines contracted the disease. Some even died from COVID.
The US was not prepared for this outbreak. When PPE became available, the most critical need was in our hospitals. Senior living communities were on the bottom of the list to receive any equipment. Orders were not fulfilled or delayed because the equipment simply was not available. Many communities waited several weeks before a shipment of equipment arrived. Testing kits were also difficult to obtain. Disinfectant spray, sanitizing wipes, thermometers, and other items difficult for the consumer to find are just as difficult for us on the front lines to find. As of this writing, more than three months after the pandemic started, I have yet to see a can of Lysol on a supermarket shelf.
I realize that there are probably some communities that failed in keeping their residents safe. I cannot say what happened behind closed doors or what missteps were taken in specific stories. I cannot say if they had PPE from the beginning or not. But if I had to wager the answer, I’m pretty sure the answer would be “no.” Those communities still need to be held accountable and must still comply with regulations.
Not only must we do more to protect our seniors, we need Congress to step up and provide much needed funding and support to do their part, too. It is their responsibility to ensure that there is adequate funding for providers in the long-term care industry while enforcing regulations to make sure the needs of our seniors are met.
Recommendations from the CDC and local and state health officials seemed to change frequently. One of the changes that was made in April was that everyone should wear at least a cloth mask if no medical ones are available. But when masks for employees were hard to come by, finding masks for residents wasn’t going to be easy. Fortunately, many volunteers locally were busy making cloth masks and donated them to various communities, so residents could have them. Even residents living in some of these communities made masks for other residents. It is my hope you will be inspired to help make a difference for our seniors, too. Write to your elected officials and encourage them to help secure PPE and funding for our seniors and the communities where they live. Support organizations like Leading Age and the NJ Alliance for Culture Change who advocate for our seniors and person-centered care. Our seniors deserve better.