COVID-19 crisis: Nursing homes

Mia Emerson, Feature Editor, Editorial Cartoonist

COVID-19 has been devastating for everyone this past year, and as we approach the date of a full year of battling coronavirus it does not seem to be getting better. However, there is one particular group of people that has been devastated by COVID-19: nursing home residents. 

While this may seem irrelevant to the demographic in Plainfield, many students have family members in nursing homes. Students have been affected not only by their family members but the elderly community at large. Knowing how well a nursing home is handling COVID-19 is also reflective of the surrounding community’s COVID-19 cases and preventative measures taken. 

Nursing home residents are in the prime demographic to be hit by the devastating effects of the virus which translates to horrifying consequences if a facility is infected. In Illinois alone, 44% of COVID-19 deaths were attributed to nursing homes in 1,584 facilities in December 2020 according to The New York Times. Nationwide, nursing homes, with only 5% of all U.S. COVID-19 cases, had 38% percent of total deaths. This discrepancy is alarming as the median case-death rate of the residents is 13% compared to 2% nationwide. 

“We had COVID, and it was devastating to families to see their loved ones decline faster as most of our residents have underlying health issues. Several residents passed away,” said Tanya Maher, the Community Relations Director at Bickford Senior Living in Oswego.

Despite how devastating the effects COVID-19 had on the residents and staff, families are questioning why this is happening. Are nursing homes not following proper procedures for disease infection? Are the disease prevention methods not working? The answers to these questions are complicated as many factors contribute to why the spread of COVID-19 in nursing homes has been so disastrous.

To start, nursing homes are breeding grounds for infectious diseases even if preventative measures are taken. Nursing homes have many people living in the same facility with the nurses moving from room to room. Residents who may be infected, but have not shown signs or symptoms, may have contact with nurses who would then take COVID-19 from room to room despite wearing full PPE, washing their hands, and cleaning multiple times a day. For nurses, it is also impossible to adhere to social distancing guidelines as their jobs involve constant touch.

As two nurses from California describe in The New York Times video “Low Pay, High Risk: Nursing Home Workers Confront Coronavirus Dilemma” their jobs include bathing, feeding, assisting them to the restroom, and brushing their teeth.

There is also another difficult variable in many nursing homes: memory care. Many elder care facilities have a memory care section where seniors who have memory diseases like Dementia and Alzheimer’s live and are taken care of. These people often do not understand why Coronavirus protocols have been put into place or if they understand they may forget and are more likely to repeatedly break precautionary measures like removing masks and leaving their rooms. This also makes it difficult for nurses to enforce these safety measures. 

The preventative measures enforced by the government appear to be lacking preventative power, and the inspections done in nursing homes appear to be lax on what meets the criteria of infectious disease control. Consider what happened in California last spring, with numerous nursing homes passing their inspections only to have COVID-19 rapidly spread throughout their facilities. One such example, according to the LA Times, happened in Kingston Healthcare Center where state officials conducted five inspections and found them in compliance with infection control protocols every time despite COVID-19 spreading to 158 residents and staff and killing 21 of those people. 

Because of this lax inspection control, protocols between nursing homes are inconsistent. Nursing homes follow basic control measures in every facility such as wearing a mask, frequent hand washing, and sanitizing; however, it becomes up to the facility to determine what other PPE the staff should wear and if they should keep residents in their rooms constantly. 

“Handwashing…We sanitize common areas and handrails, light switches, etc. Three times a day. And everyone is required to socially distance and wear a mask.” 

Here, Maher describes the infection protocols followed in Bickford Senior Living. In comparison, McKenzie Braun, Plainfield South senior, receptionist, and member of the activities department for Lakewood Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, describes the protocols at Lakewood as follows.

“Well, we keep the residents in their rooms, and the residents who go out on hospital visits or new admits are put on a 14-day quarantine to ensure that they do not have the virus. The staff dresses in full PPE (gowns, n95 masks, gloves, goggles, faces shields) when dealing with residents who have COVID or potentially have it.”

Both facilities are taking preventative measures, but they appear inconsistent. The inconsistency in what protocols are being followed in nursing homes is dangerous, as it may put certain facilities more at risk than others. However, the nurses hold out hope that they will be more prepared in the future but do not expect any procedures to change. 

“I do think that because of COVID-19 regulations the staff has learned to be more cautious. I do not think the procedures will forever be changed and I really hope the residents will be able to get back to their normal lives inside the nursing home soon. I just know next time if a pandemic is issued, the staff will be completely prepared for anything that is thrown at them,” Braun said. 

There is also hope on the horizon with the COVID-19 vaccine. Many nurses and residents have received their vaccination and are very hopeful for its effectiveness. 

“I am very hopeful and trusting in the people that have created the vaccine. They work their whole lives to prepare for this moment where they might have to potentially make a vaccine. So far I have no side effects and I actually feel really good about it” Braun said after receiving her first vaccination on January 14.