Congress must step up to save nurs­ing homes bat­tling against COVID-19

Chicago Sun-Times - - TOP NEWS - BY BOB GALLO Bob Gallo is the state direc­tor of AARP Illi­nois, which serves more than 1.7 mil­lion mem­bers and all adults 50+ across Illi­nois.

COVID-19 is spread­ing like wild­fire through the na­tion’s nurs­ing homes. Al­ready, more than 56,000 res­i­dents and staff of nurs­ing homes and other long-term care fa­cil­i­ties — in­clud­ing nearly 4,000 in Illi­nois — have died from COVID-19. They ac­count for more than 44% of U.S. coro­n­avirus deaths, even though less than 1% of Amer­i­cans live in nurs­ing homes.

It is a na­tional dis­grace, deeply felt by real Illi­nois res­i­dents.

To date, Congress has passed four bills to ad­dress the dev­as­tat­ing im­pact of the coro­n­avirus on Amer­i­cans. Yet, these bills barely touch on the cri­sis rag­ing in long-term care fa­cil­i­ties. With only a few weeks left be­fore mem­bers re­turn to their dis­tricts, what will it take for Congress to take mean­ing­ful ac­tion to pro­tect nurs­ing home res­i­dents?

For five months, nurs­ing homes have been a hot­bed for the virus, yet ba­sic pre­cau­tions to pro­tect res­i­dents and staff are still not in place. AARP has heard gut-wrench­ing ac­counts from thou­sands of fam­ily mem­bers wor­ried about their loved ones in nurs­ing homes and other long-term care fa­cil­i­ties.

AARP Illi­nois has heard from more than 100 fam­i­lies of nurs­ing home res­i­dents about the ne­glect their loved ones have ex­pe­ri­enced.

Peo­ple like Melissa Row­ley from Chicago, who was not able to visit her cousin be­fore she died in a long-term care fa­cil­ity from COVID-19. Row­ley lives with the an­guish of wish­ing she could have com­mu­ni­cated with her cousin in per­son, even just to say good­bye.

Or Robert Iovinelli, 65, from Lom­bard, who is fight­ing ev­ery day to trans­fer out of a long-term care fa­cil­ity that was widely re­ported to have a high num­ber of cases early on in this pan­demic. Iovinelli hasn’t seen his fam­ily since Christ­mas. His fa­cil­ity has ter­mi­nated even out­door vis­its with­out of­fer­ing any vir­tual al­ter­na­tives. With high staff turnover and poor trans­parency, Iovinelli wor­ries about fall­ing ill and never hav­ing the op­por­tu­nity to see his fam­ily again.

Five ways to pro­tect res­i­dents

It’s time for law­mak­ers to come to­gether to pass a bi­par­ti­san COVID-19 re­sponse pack­age with ded­i­cated fund­ing and five key poli­cies to pro­tect older adults liv­ing in nurs­ing homes and other long-term care fa­cil­i­ties:

En­sure reg­u­lar, on­go­ing test­ing and ad­e­quate per­sonal pro­tec­tive equip­ment (PPE).

Cre­ate trans­parency fo­cused on daily, pub­lic re­port­ing of cases and deaths in fa­cil­i­ties, com­mu­ni­ca­tion with fam­i­lies when loved ones are dis­charged or trans­ferred, and ac­count­abil­ity for how bil­lions of dol­lars in fed­eral fund­ing is spent.

Re­quire ac­cess to fa­cil­i­tated vir­tual vis­i­ta­tion.

Pro­vide bet­ter care for res­i­dents through ad­e­quate staffing, over­sight and ac­cess to in-per­son for­mal ad­vo­cates, called long-term care om­buds­men.

Stop at­tempts to pro­vide blan­ket im­mu­nity for long-term care fa­cil­i­ties re­lated to COVID-19.

The hope­ful news is that leg­is­la­tion has been in­tro­duced in Congress that will help save the lives of nurs­ing home res­i­dents. What re­mains miss­ing is the will to make these older Amer­i­cans and their fam­i­lies a pri­or­ity.

Our elected lead­ers must act now to pro­tect Illi­nois long-term care res­i­dents and staff be­fore the death toll rises even higher. It is lit­er­ally a mat­ter of life or death.

WILFREDO LEE/AP PHOTO

A worker at a Mi­ami nurs­ing home wheels a res­i­dent back inside af­ter a drive-by visit from the res­i­dent’s friend. Congress must pro­vide more fund­ing to help nurs­ing homes stay safe from COVID-19, AARP Illi­nois writes.

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