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Two-thirds of coronavirus-related deaths in metropolitan Phoenix have occurred in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, AARP's Arizona director on Thursday told members of a House of Representatives subcommittee examining how COVID-19 has affected such facilities in similar ways all across the country.
"AARP has heard from thousands of people all across the country whose loved ones – their mothers, fathers, grandparents, aunts, uncles and dear friends – lost their lives in nursing homes,” Dana Marie Kennedy told the House Ways and Means Committee's health subcommittee. “We are deeply alarmed by the rising death toll and the continued lack of urgent action. Much more is needed now to protect residents, staff, their loved ones and the surrounding communities from this disease.”
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Kennedy shared AARP's five-point plan for helping to stem the continued loss of life and improve conditions in the nation's long-term care facilities. The points are:
- Ensuring access to adequate personal protective equipment and testing
- Ensuring adequate staff and the ability of long-term care ombudsmen to have access to the facility
- Requiring transparency of COVID-19 data, including cases at a facility, transfer and discharge rights, and how nursing homes are using the federal relief funds they have received
- Requiring facilities to provide residents and their families with virtual visits
- Rejecting proposals to grant broad legal immunity to nursing homes and other long-term care facilities
All of the witnesses at the hearing, which included a Texas woman who lost her brother to the virus, a licensed practical nurse as well as a researcher and advocates, said they continue to hear firsthand reports that long-term care facilities still lack the PPE they need and that testing for the virus is still lacking.
"Today we are still understaffed, overworked and don't have enough PPE,” said Melinda Haschak, a licensed practical nurse at a Connecticut nursing home. Haschak, a single mother, said she frequently has had to unknowingly care for residents who tested positive for the coronavirus and when she contracted the illness she had to isolate herself from her two teenage daughters and ailing sister.
Haschak said she was grateful for donations of food to her and her coworkers as well as the occasional pizza party. But, she said, “I do not need a pizza party, we need PPE."
David Grabowski, a professor at the Harvard Medical School, said testing in nursing homes is still not adequate. “Until we get rapid and accurate testing for all staff and residents, we won't be able to contain COVID,” Grabowski said. “This can't be just a one-off. We need a surveillance program that regularly tests staff and residents in order to identify new cases as they emerge."
Delia Satterwhite, whose brother died in an Austin, Texas, nursing home from the coronavirus, said after the facility called her on March 13 to say she could no longer visit, she was not able to have any contact with him except the occasional visit through a window. “The worst part is that he died alone,” Satterwhite said emotionally. Her brother died on April 16. “I should have been with him,” she said.
Kennedy also urged Congress to require virtual visitation. “In America, when the technology to facilitate virtual visits is not only abundant, but increasingly affordable, it is nothing short of a scandal that these visits are still not available on a regular basis to many Americans in these facilities,” she said.