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Congress Told Nursing Homes Need More Testing, PPE to Combat COVID

Daughter of resident who died from virus pleads with lawmakers to improve conditions in facilities

spinner image Two nurses don PPE protective gear of plastic gowns, face masks, face shields and gloves prior to entering a quarantined patient's room in isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic, Midwest, USA
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Alison Lolley implored members of Congress on Thursday to reform the nursing home industry so that others can avoid the way her mother, who died in April from COVID-19, spent her last days.

"The fact is, my family was robbed,” said Lolley, whose mother, Cheryl, died in a nursing home in Monroe, Louisiana. “Mama was trapped in a petri dish, and we were shut out. Mama died alone, and our family will forever be scarred by this tragedy.”

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Lolley was one of several people who've been touched by the pandemic or who've researched the way nursing homes have dealt with the illness who spoke to the House Select Subcommittee on the Coronavirus Crisis during a virtual briefing on Thursday. For Lolley, remembering the lack of communication about how the illness was hitting her mother's nursing home and the quick deterioration of her condition brought her to tears.

"She complained of lack of care, attention and manhandling from people in her room who she did not recognize,” Lolley said. Sometimes, she added, her mother went entire days with no food. Many of these issues began, Lolley said, after a nursing home employee tested positive for coronavirus.

The pandemic has ravaged nursing homes across the country, killing more than 44,000 long-term care residents and staff, representing over a third of the nation's known coronavirus deaths. But one researcher who spoke to the House subcommittee disputed reports that the coronavirus has been more prevalent in low-quality nursing homes than those with high ratings from the federal government.

"Cases are concentrated where COVID is present in the community,” said David Grabowski, a professor of health care policy at the Harvard Medical School. While visitors have been kept out of facilities in an effort to stem the spread, he said, “staff unknowingly bring the virus from the community into the facility. Until we get rapid and accurate testing for all staff and residents, we won't be able to contain COVID. We need a surveillance program that regularly tests staff and residents in order to identify new cases as they emerge."

Lawmakers were also told that there remains a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE), including masks, gloves and gowns.

Chris Brown, a certified nursing assistant in a Chicago long-term care facility, told the subcommittee that he never knew when he was working with a resident who was infected with COVID-19. “I was scared the entire time and eventually had to move out of my house because I was afraid to get my family sick,” he said.

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At one point, Brown said, he used a garbage bag to protect himself because of the lack of PPE at his facility. “These people needed to be taken care of,” Brown said, echoing Lolley's pleas for better communication about exactly what is going on in individual facilities.

Rep. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who chairs the subcommittee, called for a national strategy. “Last month, the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services recommended the nursing homes test our residents and staff,” Clyburn said. “But without a comprehensive national testing plan, and distribution of testing supplies, nursing homes in at least half of the states are unable to conduct the recommended testing."

AARP has advocated for more transparency around coronavirus cases and deaths in nursing homes, for more testing and PPE in the facilities, for more support for virtual visits between residents and loved ones or representatives, and against proposals to grant legal immunity related to COVID-19 for nursing homes, assisted living and other long-term care facilities.

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