Op-Ed from Health Care Council of Illinois
Nursing homes are a battleground in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic. While nursing home professionals heroically work on the frontlines to protect and care for their residents, families and the community at large feel powerless as the numbers of diagnosed cases climb higher and higher.
From the start, the coronavirus has been a moving target. It was not entirely clear what we needed to keep everyone safe, to survive. It shifted by the day, by the hour. Early on, nursing homes were locked down, staff were screened and infectious disease protocols were stepped up, as nursing home owners struggled to secure ample supplies of personal protective equipment in a scarce market.
Did we throw up our hands in despair and surrender? Absolutely not.
We work around the clock to do everything in our power to protect our vulnerable, elderly and medically fragile residents. We plead for expanded testing because the initial directive—to cease testing after two people test positive—did not give us the information we needed to keep our people safe.
Now that nursing home staff and residents are a priority for expanded testing, we are seeing the number of cases climb. That was expected. Nursing homes are a reflection of the community where they are located, and, in most instances, nursing homes with diagnosed cases of coronavirus are located in communities with a high number of confirmed cases.
First, social distancing is next to impossible in a nursing home. We shut down dining rooms, activity rooms, and common day rooms and had to keep residents in their rooms, but they still needed the direct and high-touch care we provide to assist with everything from bathing to eating. That human connection is core to our mission. Yes, nursing home staff are following extreme infection protocols, washing their hands frequently and wearing appropriate PPE, but the coronavirus is like glitter, spreading to every nook and cranny, and popping up in the most unexpected places.
Second, our homes cannot be closed like your home can. It takes a village in every facility—from administrators to nurses and nursing assistants, social workers, activity staff, cooks, laundry and housekeeping, and so many others. The necessary movement of heroic staff between the facility and out in the community cannot be avoided, yet it continues to pose challenges.
No nursing home is "pandemic-proof". Even nursing homes with pristine infection control records are susceptible. And the new data following the recent expansion of testing will unfortunately demonstrate that sobering reality.
Screening employees for a fever or other symptoms before a shift means essential staff who were asymptomatic with the virus likely entered our buildings and, through no fault of their own, potentially infected their peers, the residents, and even their family at home. Please, do not interpret that as blame when it is anything but. It is not lip service when we say our workers are unsung heroes every day, not just during a pandemic.
Much attention has been focused on nursing homes with a high number of confirmed cases. That's understandable, and we support transparency in the statistics. We also know that the too-often sensationalized stories don't offer a full picture of the tremendous lengths taken by each nursing home to prevent the spread of the virus, which demoralizes our committed frontline staff and causes families undue concern.
We acknowledge that our efforts to communicate with the public, residents' families and our employees have been imperfect. With limited staff, we had to balance the priorities of providing care against constant communication.We are striving to do better. We know we must do better.
The last six weeks have been devastating beyond words. We grieve deeply for every resident and employee taken by COVID-19 and extend our sympathies to everyone associated with our nursing homes. If you have ever had a loved one in a nursing home, you know the relationships among staff and residents are nothing short of a true family.
This global health crisis is not over. And even after the world begins to return to our new normal, nursing homes will continue to be at the epicenter of the fight against coronavirus. We will continue to provide rehab and therapies for people who successfully fought the virus and won, only to wake up to lungs and limbs ravaged by COVID-19.
If you are asking what you can do to help, please consider this. There are many functions in a nursing home that you, as a volunteer, could help with, from the front desk to the kitchen. This would allow our trained nurses and nurse aides to concentrate on the medical care. Please visit Serve.Illinois.gov to learn how you can help.
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