By Mary Kate McGrath - June 9, 2020
New data released from the U.S. Government revealed that 26,000 nursing home residents have died from COVID-19, and more than 60,000 have fallen ill, according to NPR. While just 11 percent of country’s cases have occurred in long-term care facilities, deaths related to the coronavirus in these facilities account for more than a third of the country’s pandemic fatalities, as per the New York Times.
Many factors contribute to these alarming statistics - COVID-19 hits older people with underlying conditions the hardest, but the conditions of senior care facilities, with shared resident rooms, communal dining spaces, and healthcare workers who are tasked with caring for multiple patients also makes it easier for the virus to spread. Moving forward, many senior care facilities are changing procedures, focusing on redesigning hospital spaces, improving conditions for staff, and boosting emergency communications.
Facilities reporting data include nursing homes, assisted living facilities, memory care facilities, retirement and senior care facilities, and statistics illustrate just how disproportionately COVID-19 is hitting the world of elder-care. On the state level, the data looks even more concerning - in 14 states, the number of senior care facility residents and workers who have died from coronavirus accounts for more than half of all deaths statewide. For example, long term care facilities in Massachusetts accounted for 60% of COVID-19 related deaths in the state, one of the highest rates in the country, as per WBUR.
Unfortunately, those numbers may be underreported, NPR explains, as according to the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services, known as CMS, only about 80% of nursing homes nationwide report data to the CDC, though the remaining 20% could be fined for failing to provide the government with statistics. CMS administrator Seema Verna noted that nursing homes with the lowest ratings before the pandemic have fared the worst, with significantly higher rates of infection among staff and residents.
Given the devastating impact of COVID-19 on nursing homes and senior care facilities, healthcare providers are being called upon to change protocols and procedures. While there are many strategies hospital leaders can take to improve conditions for nursing home workers and residents, some immediates steps include conducting a safety audit, redesigning the physical format of these facilities, and improving communications for both residents or their families.
Nursing homes must comply with infectious disease inspections. In March, CMS ordered states to conduct nursing home inspections for proper infection control, but nationwide, only a little over half of those inspections have been conducted, according to NPR. For healthcare facility leaders, an inspection or audit offers an opportunity to reassess public health protocol and make sweeping improvements.
A mass notification system with a geo-polling feature can allow healthcare managers to reach out to workers in an assisted living facility and field their concerns and worries.The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in a PPE shortage among nurses and other healthcare workers, and many of these individuals are not able to physically distance from patients due to the hands-on nature of providing treatment and care for older individuals. Additionally, many are not able to take sick-time. Including these workers in safety discussions will be an essential part of improving public health protocol, and be sure to keep their concerns top of mind while crafting a new response plan.
Facilities should also consider redesigning senior care facility layouts to promote social distancing to any extent possible. The New York Times explains that many of the 15,400 nursing homes in the United States have hospital-like layouts, housing hundreds of residents. Most rooms have double occupancy; in some, up to four. Even before the pandemic, senior care advocates were challenging this model, calling instead for dividing nursing home units into small, self-sufficient rooms with kitchens, private rooms, and dedicated staff. A private room or household is more easily closed off, as well as food prepared in a household instead of made and distributed through a central facility, is better suited to stopping the spread of COVID-19.
So far, anecdotal evidence supports a small-house model for senior care facilities as an effective design to mitigate COVID-19 risk. The Department of Veterans Affairs has 13 out of 134 residential homes that are organized around small communities of 10-14 residents, as per the New York Times. In those settings, only one person tested positive for coronavirus. This provides a stark contrast with an open-plan veteran’s home, under which 74 residents died of COVID-19 and 84 more tested positive. Managers reportedly did not take proper steps to quarantine residents or workers who tested positive for the virus, and were hoarding personal protective equipment.
The smaller room model, which allows for more resident autonomy, has financial barriers for facilities with a lack of funding. For residential facilities that are unable to provide autonomous apartments for residents, major steps should still be taken to promote social distancing. Many nursing homes and elder care facilities have resorted to reducing the number of residents, moving some to hospitals or nearby facilities with greater capacity. Proactively testing and quarantining patients with COVID-19 can also mitigate the spread of the virus longterm.
One main issue that has arisen amid the coronavirus pandemic is a widespread failure to communicate with senior care facility resident’s families. The nature of COVID-19, which spreads easily from person-to-person, has prohibited in-person visits at many of these facilities. Family members are likely anxious for their loved ones wellbeing, and must be kept informed of any reported COVID-19 cases among residents or staff, as well as any protocol changes.
A mass notification system can be a powerful coronavirus tool for reaching these individuals via phone, text, e-mail, or digital signage. For example, if a nursing facility is planning to move residents to another center with more capacity, family members must be notified far in advance and kept updated about their loved ones’ health and wellness.
SMS Opt-In allows a healthcare facility to increase the reach of their mass notification system. Administrators can use a keyword for their facility - for example FAMILY, that patient’s loved ones can text to a designated number. Then, the facility can provide immediate updates vis SMS text about COVID-19 as the situation continues to develop. These updates can include new cases reported among community members, state or local restrictions put in place by governors or local leaders, sanitation schedules or other precautions being taken to lower the risk of COVID-19 spread.
By taking proactive steps to communicate with the larger community, senior care facility managers can prevent confusion, assure family members of best practices being implemented, and better public safety.
Mary Kate is a content specialist and social media manager for the Rave Mobile Safety team. She writes about public safety for the state & local and education spheres.
To address and combat the quickly spreading COVID-19 crisis, state and local governments across the United States...