Senators Excoriate Federal Response to COVID-19 in Nursing Homes, Hint at Future ‘Reckoning’

In an update to a report issued in July, two Democratic senators had sharp words for the federal response to COVID-19 in U.S. nursing homes, arguing that the Trump administration has failed to take sufficient action to protect nursing home residents and workers from the pandemic.

They pointed in particular to policy solutions that multiple experts and advocates have called for: supporting states and nursing homes through funding and action plans, providing personal protective equipment (PPE) and testing, and improving pay and benefits for the nursing home workforce, among other steps.

“Experts and advocates alike maintain that these sensible proposals, while long overdue, are critical to addressing the ongoing crisis in nursing homes,” Democratic Sens. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, and Ron Wyden of Oregon, wrote in the September update. “However, Republicans in Congress and the Trump Administration continue to defy reason and logic, prioritizing corporate interests and judicial gains, while residents and workers in nursing homes die and Americans look through windowpanes at their loved ones in horror.”

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In July, Wyden and Casey, along with Sen. Gary Peters, Democrat of Michigan, issued a report sharply criticizing the Trump administration’s response to COVID-19 in nursing homes. The July report focused particularly on a lack of resources, support and oversight; the absence of a national testing strategy; and incomplete, delayed COVID-19 case and death data for nursing homes.

In the update, Wyden and Casey acknowledged the testing initiative announced by the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) later in the month of July, which will send point-of-care antigen testing devices to all SNFs in the U.S. But they also criticized the initiative due to concerns about the accuracy of antigen testing, and the fact that shipments are not set to be complete until the end of September.

They also found that during July and August, more than 16,800 nursing home residents and workers died from COVID-19 — with, on average, more than one nursing home resident infected each minute and 11 residents dying per hour.

In addition, PPE shortages remain a problem for nursing homes.

“Between July 5, 2020 and August 30, 2020, the number of nursing homes reporting that they had no current supply of N95 masks more than tripled, with over 1,100 facilities reporting that they did not have any supplies of N95 masks on August 30, 2020,” the update said, citing data from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) accessed September 17.

Casey and Wyden called also for resuming visitation for residents safely, while maintaining resident rights and maintaining oversight of nursing homes — issues that do appear to be emerging to the fore for the federal government. CMS on September 17 updated its visitation guidance to emphasize the importance of meeting the psychosocial needs of residents and laying out a roadmap for indoor visits based on community COVID-19 spread.

“There will be a time for a reckoning, to reflect on this pandemic and ask what more could have been done,” the update concluded. “Until that time to comes [sic], Congress must act to save lives in nursing homes.”

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