25 Investigates: Second wave of COVID-19 crashing into Mass. nursing homes

Nursing home reform advocates call for more changes

BOSTON — Since the spring, 25 Investigates has documented the toll of COVID-19 on nursing home residents and their families.

Now, we’ve found the second surge is sending another wave of the virus crashing through facilities caring for vulnerable seniors.

Several Boston 25 News viewers contacted us about new COVID-19 outbreaks at nursing homes across Massachusetts. Anchor and investigative reporter Kerry Kavanaugh examined the state data, which reveals dozens of new clusters inside long term care facilities.

As of November 16th, 6,600 people have died after COVID-19 outbreaks in Massachusetts long-term care facilities. By comparison, that’s like wiping out the entire population of the towns of Harvard, Mass. or Topsfield, Mass. in a matter of months.

Health officials have been telling us these facilities are far more prepared now to deal with a second wave than they were in the spring, but advocates for nursing home reform say more needs to be done.

According to the Department of Public Health’s November 12th report, state health officials are tracking 170 clusters of COVID-19 in long-term care facilities that have led to 1,197 cases.

“The state needs to remain vigilant,” said Paul Lanzikos, Co-founder of Dignity Alliance Massachusetts, an organization advocating for changes to these facilities.

“Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, we believe that we should not return to business as usual,” Lanzikos said.

Massachusetts Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders participated in a virtual hearing with state lawmakers in October saying things have greatly improved.

“The 24/7 care settings can allow a virus to spread quickly in an industry that has historically struggled with infection control,” Sudders said on Oct. 13th.

She added the state increased dedicated isolation spaces, provided millions of personal protective equipment and spent millions strengthening infection control practices and developing a surveillance testing program.

The state says since the first surge, COVID-19 cases in nursing homes dropped 96% and COVID deaths are down 90%.

But, people are still dying. We compared the number of deaths reported the day Sudders testified in October. Since then, 391 more residents in long term care facilities have died in our state after contracting COVID-19.

“They [state health officials] are more ready than they were before,” said Arlene Germain, another co-found of Dignity Alliance Massachusetts. “I’m still concerned about the infection preventionist situation, which is the crux of the whole issue.”

It was only in August that the DPH surveys began enforcing the federal requirement that each home have an infection preventionist on staff.

And, Germain says it’s not easy for the public to determine how many and which homes are complying.

“It’s like the house is on fire then you call the fire prevention team to come and say what should you’ve done,” Lanzikos said.

Dignity Alliance Massachusetts believes the pandemic exposed underlying issues in nursing homes that only contributed to the crisis.

They advocate better infection prevention training, and continued increasing supplies of PPE. They are also pushing to single occupancy rooms. Massachusetts is winding down the use of three and four-person rooms. Advocates maintain that a single occupancy room is the best way to reduce infection and preserve a person’s dignity.

They don’t believe the solution to outbreaks is cutting people off from their loved ones on the outside, which frequently happens when a facility is working to control spread.

“Closing off these buildings and not knowing how the individuals are really doing,” Germain said. “Separating them from their family from their loved ones is an extra burden that just shouldn’t happen.”

The alliance also wants to see increased testing of regular visitors. For example, DPH surveyors, who have broad access to all parts of the home, are currently not tested for COVID-19 before they enter a facility.

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