Nursing Homes and the Coronavirus

As my readers know by now, the death toll from the Coronavirus in the United States has been astronomical—heading towards 600,000. Also astronomical is the fact that 182,000 of those deaths, as of April 15th, have happened in nursing homes, whether it be residents or staff.[1] What this means is that over 30% of total deaths reported from COVID-19 in the United States have been related to nursing homes, in spite of the fact that nursing home residents and staff combine for about one half of one percent of the total population in the United States.[2]

But how did we get here, and where do we go from here?

Yes, a high percentage of the population who died from this virus were over the age of 65, and yes, nursing homes have high concentrations of older persons. However, simply attributing what happened during COVID-19 in nursing homes to their having lots of older persons is a copout to me. It is a copout because people involved with nursing homes are dying at a much higher rate than seniors as a whole.[3]

Instead, what we’re dealing with is that too many nursing homes and too many policy decisions related to nursing homes during COVID were/are broken on so many levels. Here are some of the ways in which many nursing homes, as well as many policy decisions around nursing homes, are broken:

  • Understaffed nursing homes
  • Poor quality of care at many nursing homes
  • Nursing home neglect, which stems from the aforementioned two issues
  • Deprioritizing of nursing homes by many government officials
  • Outdated laws
  • Inadequate government oversight (and oversight in general) with nursing homes[4]

The fact that so many deaths happened, and that so many of the deaths could have been avoided with better care from nursing homes and better government oversight of them, is a point of grief, I think. These deaths needn’t have happened. If it is a point of grief for you as it is for me, you might be interested in attending an event on May 20th that will be focusing on honoring nursing home lives.[5]

However, beyond grief there will be a need for significant reforms of our nursing homes—from the way we do (or don’t prioritize) them to the oversight they are given, there is significant need for wholesale changes. They are needed before the next pandemic, because yes, I believe there will be another one at some point. And they are needed so that we can extend and improve the lives of people in our nursing homes.

It’s time to value the lives of people in our nursing homes.


[1] https://www.aarp.org/ppi/issues/caregiving/info-2020/nursing-home-covid-dashboard.html

[2] The total population in the country is just over 330 million people: https://www.census.gov/popclock/. When adding the 1.25 million or so who live in nursing homes (https://www.kff.org/other/state-indicator/number-of-nursing-facility-residents/?currentTimeframe=0&sortModel=%7B%22colId%22:%22Location%22,%22sort%22:%22asc%22%7D) and the over 600,000 people who work in a nursing home (https://phinational.org/wp-content/uploads/legacy/phi-nursing-assistants-key-facts.pdf), what we’re left with is a group of less than 2 million people that only takes up approximately half a percent of the total United States population.

[3] As of May 4, out of a total senior population of 52.4 million in the United States (https://acl.gov/sites/default/files/Aging%20and%20Disability%20in%20America/2019ProfileOlderAmericans508.pdf), about 447,000 people over 65 have died (https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/nvss/vsrr/covid_weekly/index.htm#SexAndAge); this amounts to .8% of the total senior population. On the other hand, there are 180,000 deaths out of 1.85 million (or so) people involved in nursing homes, which means that nearly 10% the total population related to nursing homes have died from COVID. Truly shocking.

[4] Many of these points come from an AARP report on the number of deaths in long-term care due to COVID. Note that the number back in early December, when this piece was written, was “only” just over 100,000: https://www.aarp.org/caregiving/health/info-2020/covid-19-nursing-homes-who-is-to-blame.html 

[5] Disclaimer: I volunteer for the organization that is facilitating the event. Still, since we’re talking about nursing home lives, I think it is worthwhile to note this event. By the way, the event is the inspiration for this post.