Read: A devastating new stage of the pandemic
Few places represent the awful consequences of this neglect more than nursing homes. Of the country’s nearly 130,000 coronavirus deaths, more than 40 percent have been residents or employees of nursing homes and long-term-care facilities. One in five facilities has reported at least one death. In just one New Jersey nursing home, at least 53 residents died after the sick were housed with the healthy and staffers had little more than rudimentary face shields for protection.
Like so many other effects of the pandemic, the U.S.’s nursing-home COVID-19 crisis is hitting communities of color especially hard. According to research by Tamara Konetzka, a health economist at the University of Chicago, nursing homes with more residents of color were more likely to have a coronavirus case or death.
And yet, state and federal officials seem to be doing little to protect the elderly from further devastation. Coronavirus cases are now surging in Sun Belt states. In recent weeks, deaths in nursing homes have continued to climb in Florida, Georgia, Texas, South Carolina, and California, according to data from the COVID Tracking Project at The Atlantic.
Read: Facing a COVID-19 resurgence and unable to act
For now, overall deaths from COVID-19 are on a downward trajectory, potentially because COVID-19 patients are currently younger on average than those who fell ill in the Northeast this spring. However, experts say this doesn’t mean we won’t see more deaths in facilities like Sapphire of Tucson, where at least 58 residents and 36 staffers had tested positive for the coronavirus as of April, right at the time of Hector’s visit. (Arizona DHS has since inspected the facility.) Instead, the disease will likely spill from the young to the old, from bars into nursing homes.
Additional COVID-19 deaths in nursing homes are probable, and they will have been preventable. American nursing homes are chronically short-staffed and, even prior to the pandemic, were doing a poor job of controlling infections. Well into the crisis, authorities kept these facilities strapped for masks, tests, and other desperately needed equipment. And now, with the coronavirus raging across southern states, experts say the elderly will remain in danger in precisely the places so many of them typically go for a peaceful retirement. The tragedy of even more nursing-home deaths will be worsened by the fact that they could have been stopped.
Nursing homes’ COVID-19 deaths may seem inevitable, given that their elderly residents live cooped up together. But according to interviews with nearly a dozen nursing-home experts, it didn’t have to be this way. Worldwide, entire cities and individual nursing homes have remained coronavirus-free.
Take Hong Kong, population 7.5 million, which has reported no deaths from COVID-19 in its care homes. The city was scarred by the outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in 2003, during which it suffered nearly 300 deaths, or almost 40 percent of the global death toll. Nursing-home residents were more likely than the general public to get SARS, and 78 percent of residents who got the virus died from it, according to Terry Lum, the head of the department of social work and social administration at the University of Hong Kong. “We also had a few doctors and nurses get killed by SARS,” Lum told me. “Those are painful to watch. We didn’t want to see that ever again.”