Coronavirus ~ Are the Elderly at Greater Risk?

For the past seven years, Elaine Herrick called Life Care Center in Washington state her home. She was a giver, handing out Mother’s Day roses and Christmas gifts to staff and residents. Her daughter Pat believed she was in good health, but at 3:30 am on March 5th, Elaine died in the midst of a coronavirus outbreak at the nursing home.


More than 100,000 cases of coronavirus have been reported worldwide, with more than 3,500 deaths. It was only a matter of time before the United States would join the growing list of countries fighting the coronavirus, or COVID-19. As of March 9, there were 26 reported COVID-19 deaths in the United States. (That number rises daily.) Of those 26 deaths, 14 were linked to Life Care Center nursing home in Washington state.


Last Thursday morning, a Life Care Center employee called Pat Herrick to inform her of Elaine’s death. But then hours later, another employee called to tell her that Elaine’s condition was stable. This second employee had failed to read Elaine’s full report. Pat’s mother had not been tested for COVID-19, so her cause of death is still uncertain.


The fact that the U.S. has had a coronavirus outbreak at a nursing home is both alarming and not surprising. Nursing homes are typically understaffed and overworked. Thousands of employees who provide care for seniors are compassionate, skilled and very good at what they do. But our elder care facilities are ill-equipped to protect residents from dangerous threats like COVID-19 or even to inform families during a crisis.


Since the coronavirus outbreak at Life Care Center, 54 residents have been transferred to hospitals while the remaining residents are confined to their rooms. Of the nursing home’s 180 employees, 70 have exhibited symptoms of the virus and been quarantined in their homes; three have been hospitalized and one has tested positive for COVID-19. Now first responders are reporting symptoms of this respiratory virus.


There are reports of not enough COVID-19 testing kits and poor training of federal and state health workers. When this crisis is all over, there will be much to learn about what we did right and what we did wrong.


But one thing is certain. Senior residents in elder care facilities are among the most vulnerable of our society. And if Life Care Center is any indicator, seniors are more likely to be affected by the COVID-19 virus due to their already compromised health conditions and close living quarters.

I can’t help but think of the two nursing homes I recently visited in the Atlanta area while looking for a place for my Father to stay a few days. I found some of the employees to be helpful and well-intentioned, but I shudder to think of what would happen if the coronavirus came knocking on their doors.


When towns or cities experience a severe flu outbreak, officials will close school so students can remain home to keep the virus contained and employees can thoroughly disinfect school buildings. Hospitals are equipped to create makeshift virus wards so patients can be quarantined and given specialized care. Businesses can require employees to work remotely and universities can hold classes online. The difference between these entities and nursing homes is that they are more likely to have funding for a health crisis. I’ve never seen a bake sale, a silent auction or a fundraising banquet for a nursing home.


As I’ve said before, I don’t have the answers. I just want to join the conversation senior advocates have been having for years.


Mom and I were already wary of nursing homes before the coronavirus outbreak. But even though we still need respite, there is no way we would take Dad to a nursing home. And if Pat Herrick had to do it over again, she’d probably feel the same way.


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