It’s now becoming clear that the biggest tragedy of all in the coronavirus crisis is the carnage happening in our nation’s nursing homes, nowhere more so than right here in Queens. According to the state Department of Health, nearly 24 percent of COVID-19 deaths statewide as of Wednesday have been among people in nursing homes and adult care facilities. Of those 3,477 people who died, 760, or just about 22 percent, passed away in Queens.
Dozens have died at a number of nursing homes here. The New Franklin Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing in Flushing has reported 45 deaths, while the Parker Jewish Institute for Health Care and Rehabilitation in Glen Oaks said it has lost 44 people. The Sapphire Center for Rehabilitation and Nursing in Flushing has reported 26 deaths. Some of the numbers may prove to be even higher in the end.
This is a tragedy, and one that could have been foreseen if not better prepared for. Nursing homes are notorious for being understaffed. The problem is that they rely on Medicare and Medicaid reimbursements from the federal government to function, and those payments have not kept up with increased costs over the years. That has to change so that the elderly can be well cared for while the nursing homes are still able to make a profit and therefore stay open.
More immediately, in this crisis, if more doctors, other medical staff and supplies had been rushed into them earlier, maybe some of those deaths could have been averted.
By March 11 it was known that 19 coronavirus deaths had been linked to the Life Care Center nursing home outside Seattle. On that date, hard as it is to believe, those 19 made up 61 percent of the total known COVID-19 fatalities in the United States, which then sat at 31. Today it’s more than 47,000. Nearly 15,000, or about a third, are in New York State — nearly a quarter of those in our nursing homes.
Now the city is increasing its provision of personal protective equipment to both public and private nursing homes by 50 percent, a spokesman for Mayor de Blasio told the New York Post in an article published Wednesday. The spokesman said City Hall had sent 40,000 N95 face masks, 800,000 surgical masks, 1.5 million disposable gloves and 105,000 gowns and coveralls to the homes last week. And it has sent 210 clinical staffers, with plans to double that.
The state would not say what it has provided nursing homes, and Gov. Cuomo, surprisingly, said it is not the state’s job to provide them with PPE. While that may be the case technically, the catastrophe within them calls for the governor to use all the powers at his disposal to make life safer there. He’s hardly hesitated to use his authority before in this crisis, to his credit. He should now turn his attention more forcefully to nursing homes to save more lives.
Inspectors must make sure the facilities are adequately staffed, and if they’re not, the state must get more professionals into them somehow. And it must insist that people be notified of their loved one’s status right away. We’ve heard too many stories of someone learning a family member was terribly ill only when it was too late. That’s unacceptable.
On the federal level, at least 79 members of the House want the government to track and publish the number of cases and deaths in nursing homes to aid in the response, and Queens Rep. Grace Meng has written the president to ask him to increase funding for them and do more testing.
It’s no surprise that nursing homes have suffered so much in the pandemic. The people there are elderly or somehow compromised by definition and are tightly packed together. Although it’s too late to provide help to thousands, we can and should act now before things get any worse. A good society respects its elders and protects them as best it can.