The Mendocino Beacon

Another COVID ‘new normal’: more California­ns dying at home

- By Phillip Reese

The COVID-19 pandemic has spurred a surge in the proportion of California­ns who are dying at home rather than in a hospital or nursing home, accelerati­ng a slow but steady rise that dates back at least two decades.

The recent upsurge in at-home deaths started in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, and the rate has continued to climb, outlasting the rigid lockdowns at hospitals and nursing homes that might help explain the initial shift. Nearly 40% of deaths in California during the first 10 months of 2022 took place at home, up from about 36% for all of 2019, according to death certificat­e data from the California Department of Public Health. By comparison, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data shows that about 26% of California­ns died at home in 1999, the earliest year for which data on at-home deaths is accessible in the agency’s public database.

The trend is amplified among California residents with serious chronic conditions. About 55% of California­ns who died from cancer did so at home during the first 10 months of 2022, compared with 50% in 2019 and 44% in 1999. About 43% of California­ns who died from Alzheimer’s in the first 10 months of 2022 did so at home, compared with 34% in 2019 and nearly 16% in 1999.

Nationwide, the share of deaths occurring at home also jumped in 2020, to 33%, then rose to nearly 34% in 2021. Nationwide data for 2022 is not yet available.

COVID’s early, deadly sweep across California does not in itself explain the increase in at-home death rates; the vast majority of people who have died from covid died in a hospital or nursing home. Instead, medical experts said, the surge — at least initially — appears to coincide with sweeping policy changes in hospitals and nursing homes as caregivers struggled to contain a virus both virulent and little understood.

The sweeping bans on in-person visitation in hospitals and nursing homes, even to the bedsides of dying patients, created an agonizing situation for families. Many chose to move a loved one back home. “It was devastatin­g to have Mom in a nursing home and dying, and the only way you can see Mom is through the window,” said Barbara Karnes, a registered nurse who has written extensivel­y about endof-life care.

At the same time, fears of COVID exposure led many people to avoid hospitals in the first years of the pandemic, in some cases neglecting treatment for other serious conditions. That, too, is thought to have contribute­d to the rise in athome deaths.

Those who specialize in end-of-life care say it is no surprise the trend has continued even as visitation policies have eased. They said more people simply want to die in a comfortabl­e, familiar place, even if it means not fighting for every second of life with medical interventi­ons.

“Whenever I ask, ‘Where do you want to be when you breathe your last breath? Or when your heart beats its last beat?’ no one ever says, ‘Oh, I want to be in the ICU,’ or ‘Oh, I want to be in the hospital,’ or ‘I want to be in a skilled nursing facility.’ They all say, ‘I want to be at home,’” said John Tastad, coordinato­r for the advance care planning program at Sharp HealthCare in San Diego.

Meanwhile, the physicians who specialize in the diseases that tend to kill Americans, such as cancer and heart disease, have become more accepting of discussing home hospice as an option if the treatment alternativ­es likely mean painful sacrifices in quality of life.

“There’s been a little bit of a culture change where maybe oncologist­s, pulmonolog­ists, congestive heart failure physicians are referring patients to palliative care earlier to help with symptom management, advanced care planning,” said Dr. Pouria Kashkouli, associate medical director for hospice at UC Davis Health.

The trends have created a booming industry. In 2021, the California Department of Health Care Access and Informatio­n listed 1,692 licensed hospice agencies in its tracking database, a leap from the 175 agencies it listed in 2002.

That much growth — and the money behind it — has sometimes led to problems. A 2020 investigat­ion by the Los Angeles Times found that fraud and quality-of-care issues were common in California’s hospice industry, a conclusion bolstered by a subsequent state audit. Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill in 2021 that placed a temporary moratorium on most new hospice licenses and sought to rein in questionab­le kickbacks to doctors and agencies.

When done correctly, though, home hospice can be a comfort to families and patients. Hospice typically lasts anywhere from a few days to a few months, and while services vary, many agencies provide regular visits from nurses, health aides, social workers, and spiritual advisers.

Nationwide, the share of deaths occurring at home also jumped in 2020, to 33%, then rose to nearly 34% in 2021. Nationwide data for 2022 is not yet available.

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