Nursing home residents account for nearly 1 in 10 of all COVID-19 cases in the United States and more than a quarter of the deaths, according to an Associated Press analysis of government data released Thursday.
As federal data collection becomes more robust, a clearer picture is emerging of the ravages of COVID-19 in nursing homes. About 1.4 million elderly and medically frail people live in such facilities, a tiny share of the American population that has borne an outsized blow from the pandemic.
Most residents have been in lockdown since early March, isolated from families and friends, even in death.
AP’s analysis of data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services found that nearly half of the more than 15,000 nursing homes have reported suspected or confirmed cases of COVID-19 as of June 7. About 1 in 5 facilities — or 21 percent — have reported deaths.
Nationwide, nursing homes reported nearly 179,000 suspected or confirmed cases among residents and 29,497 deaths. The latest figures include about 95 percent of nursing homes.
Earlier this week, a special House panel on the coronavirus pandemic launched an investigation into the crisis in nursing homes.
The vulnerabilities are many. Residents live in close quarters, usually two to a room before the pandemic. They shared dining and recreational areas and physical therapy gyms. Many staff aides work in several facilities, so they can unwittingly carry the virus from one nursing home to another.
Lawmakers are concerned “that lax oversight by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the federal government’s failure to provide testing supplies and personal protective equipment to nursing homes and long-term care facilities may have contributed to the spread of the coronavirus,” according to committee Chairman James Clyburn of South Carolina.
But CMS chief Seema Verma has said that “trying to finger-point and blame the federal government is absolutely ridiculous.” She says nursing homes with poor ratings on infection control are more likely to have high numbers of cases, a claim that academic researchers say they have not been able to substantiate.
Republican lawmakers also have blamed some Democratic governors who issued orders requiring nursing homes to take recovering coronavirus patients. New York rescinded its directive after Gov. Andrew Cuomo faced an outcry.
The AP’s analysis also found that:
— Among states, New Jersey had the highest proportion of nursing homes with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 cases, about 82 percent. This comprises 299 of the state’s 363 nursing homes.
— Massachusetts had the highest proportion of nursing homes with COVID-19 deaths, nearly 66 percent. That represented 247 of the state’s 376 nursing homes.
— In 30 states, nursing homes’ share of COVID-19 deaths was higher than the national average of 26.7 percent. In some of the hardest-hit, such as Connecticut and Massachusetts, more than one-third of the state’s deaths occurred in nursing homes.
Consumers will have access to coronavirus information through Medicare’s NursingHomeCompare website. They will be able to look up individual nursing homes to learn the number of cases and deaths among residents and staff. Data are expected to be updated weekly.
CMS head Verma says nursing home reporting required by her agency will “constitute the backbone of a nationwide COVID-19 surveillance system” to identify and contain expected rebounds of the virus as communities reopen. The nation’s first major outbreak, reported in late February, was in a Seattle-area nursing home.
“Long-term care residents and staff need to be a priority for supplies and support,” Mark Parkinson, head of the nursing home industry group American Health Care Association, said Thursday in a statement about the new data. “It’s time that America rally around our nation’s seniors and caregivers just as they did with hospitals.”
The data release comes as many states have yet to meet a federal goal to test every resident and staff member for COVID-19. That was supposed to have happened before the end of May.
Also unmet is a separate federal goal for state inspectors to assess all nursing homes for infection control. There is no deadline, but federal officials are growing impatient. As of a couple of weeks ago, only a few states had inspected all facilities.
Even before the coronavirus pandemic, many nursing homes had “persistent” problems with infection control, according to a recent report from the Government Accountability Office, a watchdog agency for Congress.
Federal officials have recommended a one-time test for all residents and staff, as well as weekly retesting of staff.
Verma says states should use “extreme caution” before reopening nursing homes to visitors.
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