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BILL CRAWFORD — More help needed to keep nursing home residents safe

BILL CRAWFORD

Mississippians trust the care of precious loved ones to many wonderful nursing homes and other long-term care facilities. But, the COVID-19 pandemic has raised concerns.

While 13% of the state’s virus cases occurred in long-term care facilities, they had 50% of deaths (the national average is about 33%).

More specifically, through May 21 there had been 1,627 cases reported at long-term care facilities with 300 deaths, a mortality rate of 18.4%. Excluding those, state cases totaled 10,997 with 296 deaths, a mortality rate of 2.7%.

So, many are asking if their loved ones are safe in these facilities.

No clear answer has been provided by the Mississippi Department of Health (MSDH).

State Health Officer and MSDH director Dr. Thomas Dobbs told WLBT long term care facilities have “heightened risk factors” because residents are older and live in close quarters.  CMS Administrator Seema Verma called nursing homes “ground zero” for the virus as the federal government increased reporting and testing requirements.

Two weeks ago Gov. Tate Reeves and Dobbs announced all patients and staff at long-term care facilities will be tested. Reeves said testing and contact tracing is especially important in long-term care facilities.

This follows the issuance of strict infection control and other screening recommendations in mid-March by federal health officials and more detailed guidance issued on April 2nd. As thorough and detailed as the government issuances were, they were recommendations, not requirements.

We do not know how well our facilities have implemented them. What little we know has been anecdotal from local newspaper and TV reports.

Nationally, in late March, CMS conducted surveys that showed 36% of facilities did not follow proper hand washing guidelines and 25% failed to demonstrate proper use of personal protective equipment, both longstanding prescribed infection control measures for all nursing homes.

Mississippi has approximately 414 long-term care facilities (the number varies each year) with 33,604 beds located in 81 counties. There are 208 nursing homes, 184 personal care homes, 8 psychiatric residential facilities, and 14 intermediate care facilities for individuals with intellectual disabilities.

Many are small with limited financial resources and staff capacity. Most are privately owned and not eager for much regulatory oversight.

While federal and state sources have provided protective equipment, supplies, and virus test kits and the National Guard may help with testing, many need additional financial and staff resources plus oversight to cope with this crisis.

On April 3rd, Dobbs told the Clarion-Ledger the department would not increase inspections at nursing homes, but would send inspectors to those with cases to ensure proper isolation and quarantine measures were followed. The surge in cases coupled with major staff cuts imposed on MSDH by the Legislature suggests the agency has too few inspectors to provide needed support.

Nursing homes and long-term care facilities play a vital role in caring for our elderly citizens. Most do wonderful jobs in normal circumstances but were unprepared for COVID-19. With Dobbs expecting cases to “skyrocket” in the fall, he, Reeves, and legislators should go all out to get these facilities the financial resources and staff support needed to assure our loved ones’ safety.

“Fix your thoughts on what is true and good and right” – Philippians 4:8.

» BILL CRAWFORD is a syndicated columnist from Jackson.

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