'I'm really afraid': Nursing homes remain hotbeds for COVID-19 as data shows minimal early inspections, staffing shortages

Wednesday, July 22, 2020
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COVID-19 continues to take its toll on those residents living in nursing homes, assisted living, and other long-term care facilities.

RALEIGH, N.C. (WTVD) -- COVID-19 continues to take its toll on those residents living in nursing homes, assisted living, and other long-term care facilities.

In North Carolina, more than 800 long-term care residents have died due to severe complications from COVID-19, and the death toll continues to mount. Family members, along with those living in the centers, continue to say not enough is not being done to keep their loved ones safe.

The fears are real for Melvin Boykin.

"I'm really scared, I'm really afraid," he said.

Boykin has been at Tower Rehabilitation and Nursing Center in Raleigh since February, when his leg was amputated.

"I came here to learn how to walk again," he said.

Last week, he started getting letters from the administrator at Tower Rehabilitation and Nursing Center confirming that so far, six employees and 19 residents at the rehab and nursing center tested positive for the virus.

"At one point, we were safe because we have a COVID-19 side where the people are testing positive, and somehow it got over here to my side," Boykin said.

Tuesday, Boykin said he found out he tested positive for the virus.

For safety measures, in the letters, the administrator at Tower said they have access to testing and PPE, are aggressively treating COVID-19 patients, and are keeping them in isolation. The letter said employees who test positive can't return to work until they pass the center's strict return-to-work protocol. Melvin said he appreciates these safety measures, but is still fearful.

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Dr. Catherine Sevier, a representative for the American Association of Retired Persons (AARP), said despite knowing nursing homes are hotbeds for the virus, enough is not being done. In North Carolina, more than 50% of all COVID-19 deaths are tied to long-term care facilities including nursing homes and assisted living facilities.

Sevier explained one of the reasons nursing homes are being hit so hard is because action wasn't taken fast enough to protect residents and staff.

"We didn't get ahead with PPE in the beginning, which put us at risk, and we're still paying a price for that," Sevier said. "In between staff who have become ill and patients or residents, we've just seen a lot of overwhelm on their parts."

AARP has put together a list of resources and support for families and caregivers, you can find more information here.

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Federal data also highlights the challenges the North Carolina facilities face.

According to July data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid, nearly one out of every five facilities in North Carolina reported a shortage of nursing staff. Seventy facilities reported being short both nurses and aides.

Data from the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid also revealed officials waited months after the pandemic hit to inspect facilities. More than 70% of the inspections conducted between March and June took place in May, nearly two months into the pandemic and even then not all facilities were inspected. By the end of May, only 43% of the state's facilities had been surveyed and a handful were cited for deficiencies directly related to COVID-19

Some of the more than one hundred deficiencies found across between March-May onfederal inspection records included failing to properly wash hands, failing to screen for COVID-19 symptoms, nurses not wearing PPE, and lack of social distancing.

"The facility failed to ensure all accessible entrances had a screening station to assess anyone who entered the facility for signs or symptoms of the COVID-19 virus. This failure occured during a COVID-19 Pandemic and had the potential to affect all residents," one inspection report reads.

To find out if a long-term care facility near you has been cited for COVID-19 related issues or any other deficiencies, you can search violations here.

Now months into the pandemic, officials are starting to get a handle on cases inside facilities. As of this month, federal data shows 98% of the state's facilities were surveyed, but the violations aren't publicly available yet.

The state also partnered with CVS Omnicare to get all residents and staff in 400 facilities tested by mid-August.

There is a push to get Congress to give more funding to nursing homes to help residents and the staff that work in these facilities. The American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living (AHCA/NCAL), representing more than 14,000 nursing homes and assisted living communities across the country that provide care to approximately five million people each year, called on Congress to ensure dedicated funding and priority attention is given to long term care residents and caregivers.

The long-term care industry is requesting an additional $100 billion for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Provider Relief Fund, which is accessible for all health care providers impacted by COVID-19, and that a sizeable portion of the fund be dedicated to helping nursing homes and assisted living communities cover the enormous costs associated with protecting vulnerable residents and staff from the virus, including constant testing, personal protective equipment (PPE) and staffing.

"With the recent major spikes of COVID cases in many states across the country, we are very concerned this trend will lead to a dramatic increase in cases in nursing homes and assisted living communities," stated Mark Parkinson, President, and CEO of the American Health Care Association and National Center for Assisted Living. "Without adequate funding and resources, the U.S. will end up repeating the same mistakes from several months ago. We need Congress to prioritize nursing homes and assisted living communities in this upcoming legislation."

A full list of the long-term care industry's requests for Congress in the next stimulus package can be found here.