Even before the first cases of COVID-19 were detected in Pennsylvania, health officials warned of the elevated risk that the virus would pose to older adults and individuals living with chronic health conditions. As the coronavirus has spread over the past many months, its impact on older adults has been severe, particularly for seniors living in long-term care facilities.
There have now been over 4,000 deaths attributable to COVID-19 among residents of nursing homes and personal care homes in Pennsylvania. These fatalities account for more than two-thirds of the COVID-19 deaths in the Commonwealth.
Congregate settings such as nursing homes have presented a high risk of COVID-19 spread due to the physical proximity of residents and the challenges of implementing social distancing. Many services provided in these settings require close personal contact, such as assistance with eating, dressing, and bathing — services that cannot practically be done from six feet away. Additionally, more than half of long-term care residents experience some form of cognitive impairment, meaning they often cannot be left alone to self-isolate.
Restricting visitation to long-term care facilities was one of the first actions taken by the Wolf administration in preparation for COVID-19, and for good reason. Now, even as counties move into the “Green Phase” of the governor’s Reopening Plan, restrictions remain on visitation to long-term care facilities given the dire consequences of transmission in these settings (though individual facilities can adapt their own visitation policy after 28 days in the Green Phase).
So what can we in the community do to support people in long-term care facilities?
#1: Continue to take precautions against COVID-19
We all have a role to play in protecting nursing home residents who are most at risk of fatal COVID-19 cases. The public health community has resoundingly agreed that continuing to wear masks is the surest step to reduce the spread of COVID-19. Precautions against the spread of germs, such as thorough hand washing and frequent cleaning, also remain necessary.
The people who work in nursing homes include medical professionals, personal aides, therapists, administrators, food service workers, maintenance technicians and more. They shop in the supermarket with us, ride public transit with us and walk past us on the sidewalk. If we aren’t taking precautions, we may be putting them at risk and in turn, all of the people they work with.
#2: Reach out
Any of us who have friends and loved ones in a long-term care facility should be reaching out to offer human connection. Most of us saw firsthand how difficult it was to be isolated during the stay-at-home orders. This isolation persists for residents in long-term care settings. This need for connection is especially true for our LGBT loved ones, who were already at a higher risk of experiencing isolation in long-term care settings.
Even though in-person visitation is still not possible, congregate care providers are responsible for facilitating ongoing communication between individuals and their loved ones through means such as telephone calls, video conferences or writing letters. This communication is not only for family members but for anyone that the individual chooses to communicate with during the COVID-19 pandemic, including friends and “families of choice.”
The Pennsylvania Long-Term Care Ombudsman Program is available as a resource for anyone struggling to connect with a loved one in a long-term care facility (717-783-8975, [email protected])
#3: Be an advocate
Additional advocacy is needed to ensure that long-term care facilities have the resources they need to effectively protect their residents and employees. In the first few months of the pandemic, facilities across the country reported not receiving sufficient personal protective equipment (PPE) to be able to keep their staff and residents safe. Facilities have also experienced serious staffing shortages as workers have gotten sick.
Since the CARES Act was passed in March, several pieces of federal legislation have been proposed to direct funding to long-term care facilities for additional staffing, testing and PPE. Legislative efforts have also sought to provide front-line workers in care facilities with overtime pay and paid family and sick leave benefits. Unfortunately, most of these proposals have not been signed into law. Contacting legislators at the federal, state and local levels is needed to ensure that legislation addresses the continued needs of long-term care residents.
COVID-19 has been a challenge, unlike anything we’ve seen before. While Pennsylvania has made significant progress in slowing the spread of the virus, we are not yet in the clear, and some of the most vulnerable members of our communities are relying on our continued vigilance, care and support.
David Griffith is the Director of Programs & Outreach for the LGBT Elder Initiative. To learn more about the LGBT Elder Initiative, visit www.lgbtelderinitiative.org.