Long Term Care Providers Need To Be A Top Priority Now, During Vaccine Distribution And After
It has been nine months since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the journey for nursing homes and assisted living communities has been challenging, we’ve also seen the heroic work of dedicated caregivers save countless lives. As we head into winter with cases sharply rising across the country, now is the time to take a step back and examine where we are at this moment and the next phase in the battle against COVID-19.
There are certainly reasons to be both encouraged and discouraged but, we can all agree, there is still a long road ahead. As the pandemic in the United States now worsens, we must continue to work together to ensure the safety of our most vulnerable populations and frontline workers. Governors must designate as top priorities long term care residents and staff for the COVID-19 vaccine, lawmakers must provide additional funding and resources for long term care facilities, and our fellow citizens must exercise discipline and caution in their daily activities.
There have been significant improvements since the spring due to a better understanding of the virus, better treatments, and government resources to help reduce spread. Nine months ago, the health care sector was left scrambling to make sense of this novel virus on their own and our public health response was focused on a symptoms-based approach to fighting the virus. Now, we know its most crucial and unique nature – namely its ability to spread through asymptomatic carriers. We have reinforced infection control protocols to account for what we’ve learned and to prevent the virus from spreading further.
The lack of critical resources that was such a challenge early on has improved, putting us in a better position to handle the crisis at hand. Access to testing – particularly rapid results – has played a pivotal role in monitoring residents and staff, and thereby, limiting outbreaks. Supply chain improvements and federal aid have enabled many providers to acquire essential PPE for our health care heroes on the frontlines.
Despite this progress, we are still in the midst of a long fight and the toughest days are likely ahead of us. COVID cases across the country are once again on the rise among the general public, and data from Johns Hopkins University and the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) shows a coinciding uptick in cases in nursing homes. In fact, the latest data shows that community spread of the virus has resulted in the worst spike of cases in nursing homes since the spring.
The upward trajectory of cases in both the general public and long term care facilities is deeply concerning. Experts from our nation’s most prestigious academic institutions have conducted independent research that shows community spread and the likelihood of outbreaks in nursing homes are directly linked. If the virus is present in the community, caregivers are at greater risk of contracting the virus outside of the workplace and unknowingly bringing it into facilities.
The COVID-19 vaccine will be one of our strongest lines of defense. Federal approval and distribution of the vaccine could be days away, but the initial supply of doses will be limited. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), a panel of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), recommended last week that long term care residents and staff be included for the first round of “1a” distribution. We are urging governors to implement ACIP’s recommendations as quickly as possible, as a one-month delay in administering the vaccine at long term care facilities could cost more than 20,000 of our residents their lives.
The government aid that has been distributed to long term care providers through the CARES Act has been pivotal in dramatically reducing the number of cases and deaths within our facilities. But providers have exhausted most of this funding due to the high cost of PPE, testing and staffing. Congress must put the pandemic ahead of party and work together to find a compromise, so long term care facilities have the resources they need to continue fighting the virus, including urgently-needed support for staff who are working day and night to protect residents.
Although the supply chain has improved, many providers still lack access to adequate PPE. A recent study by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) found that one in five nursing homes were dangerously low on one or more items, such as N95s and gloves. The high demand for PPE in all health care sectors and aspects of society will threaten the ability of long term care providers being able to afford and acquire additional inventory. If we have any chance of beating COVID-19, this must be addressed. Harnessing the power of public-private partnerships will enable us to ramp up the manufacturing and supply of PPE for all health care providers, but especially long term care.
We cannot successfully protect long term care residents and staff without controlling the spread of the virus among the general population. We are counting on members of the public to think of their elderly parents and grandparents, hold themselves accountable, and adhere to public health guidelines. This includes wearing a mask, maintaining social distancing, avoiding large gatherings and washing hands regularly. These are small acts that can make a tremendous difference in protecting our nation’s seniors. This is especially important with the holiday season underway and Americans planning their celebrations.
We remain committed to doing all we can to ensure the health and safety of our residents and caregivers is the top priority for the public health sector. It’s a duty we have made clear from the very early days of the COVID-19 battle and will continue to maintain each and every day. With every level of government and every community behind us, we can overcome this once-in-a-century pandemic.
Mark Parkinson is the president and chief executive officer of the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living, and former governor of Kansas.