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Lack of Transparency

Published on April 26th, 2020

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy has ordered an investigation into the high number of COVID-19 deaths in  nursing homes facilities following a deadly outbreak and grisly scene at one of the state’s largest nursing homes.  Police, acting this week on a tip about bodies illegally stored in a shed at a nursing home, found 17 bodies stored in a makeshift morgue.

Since late March, 57 residents have died at the Andover Subacute and Rehabilitation Center I and II, according to the Sussex County Division of Health. Twenty-six of the victims had tested positive for COVID-19.  The New Jersey nursing home outbreak is just one dramatic example of a trend of infections and death sweeping through nursing homes across the country.  In New York, 19 nursing homes have reported at least 20 deaths each linked to COVID-19, according to a state report released last Friday. A single home in Brooklyn reported 55 deaths. Four other homes in New York City reported more than 40. In Massachusetts, half of all COVID-19 deaths have occurred among nursing home residents.

But the full scale of the outbreak at nursing homes across the country remains unknown, said Elaine Ryan, vice president of government affairs for state advocacy at AARP. “There is little transparency on what is going on,” Ryan said. “It is an outrage.”  AARP is advocating for increased COVID-19 testing for nursing home residents and staff, increased access to personal protective equipment for nursing home caregivers, and a solution to the staffing crisis at nursing homes, which were understaffed before the pandemic.

Ryan said the federal government and many states were not even requiring nursing homes to make public the number of COVID-19 deaths and infections at their facilities. Because of that, policy makers and families with loved ones at nursing homes are often learning first of COVID-19 outbreaks at nursing homes from the media. And the lack of reporting has hindered relief efforts and left nursing home residents and their relatives in the dark.

“If we don’t know where these cases are happening and who needs help, how can we respond?” Ryan asked.

Many nursing homes had poor records for infection control before the crisis struck, which made them particularly vulnerable to the pandemic, according to Patricia McGinnis, executive director of California Advocates for Nursing Home Reform. In March, for example, the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services reported that employees at 36 percent of nursing homes it inspected did not follow proper handwashing guidelines, and 25 percent failed to demonstrate the proper use of personal protective equipment.

Nursing homes “couldn’t deal with C. diff, sepsis and MRSA,” McGinnis said, referring to a list of infections that swept through nursing homes before the pandemic. “With COVID-19, the spread is just no surprise.”

“People are dying in nursing homes, and they are dying in some cases very quickly, and families in some cases are unable to get information or updates on their loved ones,” Facciarossa Brewer said. “It’s horrifying.”

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