The best article to date on the COVID pandemic in long-term care facilities appeared this morning in the Wall Street Journal (Anna Wilde Mathews, Jason Douglas, Jon Kamp, and Dasi Yoon, “Covid-19 Took Deadly Aim At World’s Nursing Homes,” https://www.wsj.com/articles/covid-19-stalked-nursing-homes-around-the-world-11609436215?mod=searchresults_pos1&page=1). It is not another emotional story of some scandalous facility – the kind of stories we’ve had in the United States for 70 years. Rather it discusses the catastrophe in the broader context of system failure.
I believe the article could have gone further in its unmentioned but more or less implied critique of the various subsystems of the overall system, e.g. the industry, regulators, aging enterprises such as AARP, and legislators. These mutually reinforcing subsystems were not singled out for the type of scathing criticism they deserve. That’s a problem and weakness in the reporting. Nevertheless, the article was clear that most of the 120,000 estimated deaths was preventable.
The cross cultural comparison presented by the authors cited a study in the Journal of Post-Acute and Long-Term Medicine, in which a dozen member countries of the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development were studied and compared. Not surprisingly, COVID-19 deaths were concentrated in long-term care facilities across the world. But some countries – mostly Asian countries – greatly reduced the effects of the scourge in their long-term care facilities.
As stated in the article:
The devastating toll wasn’t inevitable. Countries such as South Korea managed to limit the deaths among nursing home residents by avoiding widespread community outbreaks and moving quickly to prevent infections from spreading inside the facilities. Even as it faces a recent surge of Covid-19 cases, the entire east Asian nation has still reported only about 70 long-term care deaths.
Dr. Samir Sinha, Director of health policy and research and the National co-chair of the National institute of Aging said “We left the barn door open.” The authors continued to point out that most nations failed – especially the U.S. – in taking precautions and reacting slowly. It was well-known that infectious diseases are a significant threat to patients in long-term care facilities.
As I indicated, this article has its weakness by not focusing heavily on the industry’s gross negligence (by placing investors over stakeholders), or on lax regulation of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the various state agencies that appeared to be protecting and carrying water for the industry. Furthermore, the authors misrepresented the Trump Administration’s COVID in Nursing Homes Commission by stating that “it called for a more muscular response, including greater help for nursing homes with staffing, testing, and protective gear.” In fact, the Commission was a whitewash of the industry’s negligence and used by the Trump Administration as propaganda. Seema Verma issued a press release claiming it validated the great job done by the Administration.
Although the WSJ article was apparently not a call for an independent commission to determine why 120,000 mostly preventable deaths occurred, it should be a bit of help in motivating the public, legislators, and advocates to call for such an entity. The death of so many patients in long-term care is one of the greatest medical catastrophes in U.S. history. To not hold responsible parties accountable will present a grave danger to elderly and disabled patients in long-term care institutions.