The U.S. Nursing Home System Incurred Massive Fatalities Due to System Failure. Will We Forget it Happened?

What Does the Death of 132,000 Institutionalized Patients Mean for the Past and the Future?

Officially 132,000 patients in the care of government funded and regulated skilled nursing facilities succumbed to the COVID-19 virus. The question with which we must now grapple is this: “Why did an unprecedented mass fatality occur to a specific institutionalized group of Americans?” Prior to COVID, the largest pandemic related sweep of death through an institution occurred in the military during WWI. Of the approximately 60,000 U.S. military deaths during the first World War, 40,000 were due to influenza.

Infectious disease experts warned us for decades that periodic pandemics would become the norm. In regard to COVID and the pandemics that preceded it, here is what Dr. Michael Osterholm and Mark Olshaker said in the preface to their new edition of Deadliest Enemy:

They all came as a surprise, and they shouldn’t have. Nor should the next one; and rest assured, there will be a next one and one after that, and on and on. And as we have outlined in this book, one of them will be even bigger and one or more orders of magnitude and more serious than COVID-19. Most likely, as we’ve written, it will be a novel influenza virus with the same devastating impact as the 1918-19 Great Influenza pandemic that killed between fifty and one hundred million people, but playing out in a world with three times the population, international commercial air travel, tinderbox. Third World megacities, encroachment of natural habitats that have brought animal reservoirs of disease to our doorsteps, hundreds of millions of humans and host animals living cheek by jowl, and a planet-wide just-in-time supply chain delivering everything from electronics and auto parts to lifesaving medicines without which the most advanced hospitals cease to function.

Michael Osterholm & Mark Olshaker, Deadliest Enemy, New York: Little, Brown, Spark

What Does One of the Few Few Experts on Presidents & Pandemics have to Say?

Max Skidmore, an expert on U.S. presidents, as well as my colleague and fellow author on this blog has written a book entitled Presidents, Pandemics, and Politics. Like so many other experts who tried to tell us what was likely to happen, Professor Skidmore presciently wrote this in 2016:

Presidents and Pandemics will argue that we must learn from past experience – mistakes and successes – in preparation for the future, and that future preparation vital to the maintenance of civilization, here and elsewhere. As critical as terrorism is in the modern world, including bioterrorism, an even greater threat comes from natural causes. It will be necessary to overcome the tendency to respond only to the most dramatic danger – the obscenities, say, of a scowling enemy decapitating a helpless captive, attacking innocent school children, or snarling evil intent that might take place here – as opposed to preparation also for what assuredly will take place here: ever more virulent pandemics.

Max J. Skidmore, Presidents, Pandemics, and Politics, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

The U.S. Nursing Home System Was Warned and Didn’t Pay Heed to the Warning: That is Inexcusable

There appears to have been no preparation – no set of guidelines in place and enforced – to deter the rate of COVID-19 fatalities that occurred in U.S. skilled nursing facilities. If providers and agencies charged with regulating them didn’t know about guidelines for preventing mass fatalities due to a pandemic, they should have known.

Officials in Hong Kong knew about the devastation wrought by the 2003 SARS outbreak and took steps to prevent it from happening again. They issued a set of guidelines which required the following: (1) All facilities have an infection control officer, (2) Conduct annual outbreak drills, (3) Have a permanent 1- to 3-month stockpile of personal protective equipment (PPE) use, and (4) Establish visitation rules that address hygiene and PPE use, and procure technology to facilitate communication with families in case of an outbreak. Provisions were also made to externally quarantine infected residents and staff. (See: George A. Heckman, MD, et al., “Proceedings From an International Virtual Townhall: Reflecting on the COVID-19 Pandemic: Themes From Long-Term Care,” JAMDA, 28 April 2021, p. 2)

Seven Hundred and Sixty skilled nursing facilities in which 76,673 patients are ensconced are located in Hong Kong. It appears that approximately 30 patients in these facilities died because of COVID-19. In the U.S., it was not uncommon for a single facility to have 30 fatalities (e.g. Riverbend Rehab and Care in Kansas City Kansas owned by the Ensign Group, which had a phenomenally good year financially during 2020). Companies such as Life Care Centers of America, the Evangelical Lutheran Good Samaritan chain, and the Ensign Group had multiple facilities with 30 or more deaths. Fifty patients were killed in the Life Care Care Centers facility in Farmington, New Mexico, but there were many others in which excessive deaths occurred.

If There is No Accountability, the Next Natural Disaster in the Form of a Virus Will Result in Mass Fatalities of Institutionalized Skilled Nursing Patients

These days we are not hearing a call for a commission or even a strong move on capitol hill for serious investigative hearings. That is horrifying. The nursing home industry was well rewarded financially, but failed to discharge its responsibilities to care adequately for patients. My colleague Professor Charlene Harrington and I have conducted in depth research into the financial performance of publicly listed corporations deriving their revenue from public funds. They did quite well during 2020 and have as of yet not been called before congress to answer for their performance during 2020. We will continue to conduct that research and disseminate the results. (see: (See: Kingsley DE, Harrington C. “COVID-19 “Impact on publicly traded nursing home companies,” J Am Geriatr Soc. 2021; 1-4. https//

Dave Kingsley